What a year for hockey

It’s been awhile.

When I accepted a promotion with the Daily Mining Gazette from sports writer to assistant editor, I fully planned on keeping my weekly column alive with my thoughts on the local sports scene.

Yeah, that didn’t happen as planned.

I also thought I wasn’t going to do a lot of writing. Instead, I covered an awful lot of hockey, and what a season it has turned out to be.

Between Houghton, Hancock and Calumet, it sure seemed as though the eventual Division 3 state champion was going to come out of the local area. At the end of the day, we know it didn’t quite work out that way, but the Bulldogs sure gave us a lot of excitement during their deep run.

Then, players from those three school combined to make up most of Team Copper Country in order to defend their national title, this time in Green Bay. To make a long story short, they won it all again, proving these kids have what it takes to be champions.

I am not at all surprised that Calumet’s Tanner Rowe was drafted in the USHL Futures draft. The son of two longtime family friends of mine, Rowe skates like his mother and thinks the game like his father.

This season also saw the first year in a new era for Michigan Tech hockey. Head coach Joe Shawhan and his team went through a lot of growing pains with an awful lot of new faces on the ice and in the coaching staff.

The program seemed to hit a low point late in the season during a two-game home series against Arizona State. A fairly quiet, physical series culminated in what best be described as a brouhaha involving most players and coaches from both teams at center ice. While embarrassing in the moment for everyone involved, it might just have been what the doctor ordered for the Huskies, who galvanized afterwards for a seemingly unbelievable run past Bemidji State, Minnesota State and Northern Michigan to win their second straight WCHA Playoff title and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, where they lost in overtime to Notre Dame, who made it all the way to the Frozen Four final.

In the NHL, the season really began at the NHL Awards after the 2016-17 season.

A brand new team was introduced in the Vegas Golden Knights. The Knights announced their expansion roster over the course of the night, and the overwhelming feeling at the time was, “What the hell are they doing?”

The Knights drafted a boatload of defenders and announced trades for players like Mikhail Grabovski, who was suffering from the effects of post-concussion syndrome.

Needless to say, the predictions were that the Knights might not do much better than the Colorado Avalanche had done in 2016-17, about 65 points. They were supposed to be in a battle for the top overall draft pick in 2018.

Then, tragedy struck.

Las Vegas, ironically (to me) after a Knights-San Jose Sharks preseason game, was the site of one of the most horrific mass shootings this country has ever seen. The city and the team came together, united under the hashtag, #VegasStrong. The Knights won their first game in their season opener.

Within two weeks, it was clear that the Knights were not going to be the pushover many hockey fans thought they were going to be. Instead, they proved to be an extremely difficult team to play against. They took the Pittsburgh model and cranked it up by two or three notches. They flew down the rink with numbers. They backchecked furiously. Finally, they blocked a ton of shots, allowing them to survive a multitude of injuries to their goaltenders.

As the season progressed, the Knights never really showed any signs of being an expansion team. Sure, there were small blips here and there, but, at the end of the day, they won the Pacific Division. Then, they won 12 of their first 15 playoff games to qualify for the Stanley Cup Finals.

Now, they face the Washington Capitals, another team that has yet to win a Stanley Cup Finals game, let alone the trophy itself. The Capitals were supposed to finally return to Earth this season after several strong campaigns that saw them at or near the top of the league each year.

The Capitals should have been eliminated in the first round when they lost both of the first two games at home to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Instead, they rebounded and knocked off the Jackets and then eliminated the Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning in order to get to here.

At the time of writing, Game One was tied, 2-2, after the first period.

No matter what happens, it should be a heck of a Finals.

Oh what a season it’s been.