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6 surprises from the NHL's regular season

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The 2023-24 NHL regular season was one of the best in recent memory.

With chaos in the standings until the final days, unexpected breakouts from numerous players, and dramatic storylines with long-term impacts, it was truly a campaign to remember.

Here are six surprises from the regular season as we wait for the playoffs to begin Saturday.

Canucks soar to Pacific Division title

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Coming into the season, the Vancouver Canucks were viewed as potential challengers for a wild-card spot but were considered firmly behind Pacific Division rivals like the Vegas Golden Knights, Edmonton Oilers, and L.A. Kings.

Even the team's staunchest supporters didn't see a division title and near Presidents' Trophy campaign in the offing. But here we are.

Vancouver's turnaround has been swift. With Jack Adams favorite Rick Tocchet at the helm, the Canucks have gotten star performances from top players Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko, J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, and Brock Boeser, with the first two legitimate contenders to win major end-of-season awards.

The Canucks' 26-point improvement from 2022-23 is the most league-wide, eight more than the Florida Panthers in second. It's a drastic jump, and it means Vancouver will host playoff games for the first time in nine years.

Devils crumble with injuries, goaltending woes

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The New Jersey Devils were among the most positive surprises a season ago, going from bottom five to top five in the league standings.

With a young roster boasting exciting offensive talent, most pictured the Devils to continue their rapid rise. In fact, New Jersey was the popular pick to claim the division in theScore's preseason predictions.

Progression isn't always linear, and the Devils found that out this season. New Jersey tumbled down the standings to finish the campaign with just 81 points - a massive 31-point drop from the year prior, the largest in the NHL.

Jack Hughes missed 20 games, but the key loss was ultimately Dougie Hamilton. The veteran defenseman was injured in late November and didn't play again, missing 62 games in total.

That absence, combined with abhorrent goaltending from Vitek Vanecek, Akira Schmid, and Nico Daws, has given New Jersey a reality check heading into an important offseason.

Reinhart, Hyman surpass 50 goals

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If you asked someone in September to name the players who'd score 50 goals in 2023-24, you'd have waited a while for a mention of Zach Hyman. You'd probably still be waiting to hear Sam Reinhart's name.

The two wingers crushed their previous career bests with remarkable campaigns.

Reinhart, whose previous career high was 33, sniffed 60 with a 57-goal season. It was a contract year for the ages, as the 28-year-old finished second in the "Rocket" Richard Trophy race.

Then there's Hyman, who has netted over 25% of his career goals this year alone. The 31-year-old's 54-goal campaign is a great example of hard work paying off.

Oilers falter early, charge back into contention

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The Oilers were 10 points out of a playoff spot at American Thanksgiving. A team that was expected to contend for the Stanley Cup was closer to the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks in points than the second wild-card spot.

And yet, the Oilers end the season second in the Pacific Division and will host a first-round playoff series.

It didn't come easy: Edmonton needed a near NHL-record 16-game winning streak to leap back into contention.

The early-season woes cost bench boss Jay Woodcroft his job. Connor McDavid's former OHL coach, Kris Knoblauch, was tabbed to take the reins, and the team has flourished under his watch.

As the Oilers gear up for the playoffs and celebrate McDavid's 100 assists and Hyman's 50 goals, it's easy to forget just how close 2023-24 came to utter disaster.

Welcome to the NHL ... Utah?

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An Arizona Coyotes relocation isn't a surprise in itself. Most assumed it was a matter of time if an arena solution didn't come to fruition.

But Arizona seemed to be in it for the long haul just a few weeks ago when the team announced a commitment to win a land auction and build an arena.

Then, out of left field, reports emerged that the NHL was preparing two schedules for the 2024-25 season: one with the Coyotes in Arizona, and one with the team in Salt Lake City. Within days, the relocation to Utah was all but officially announced.

The franchise had been surrounded by relocation rumors in recent years, but it's the sudden nature of the move that makes it one of the season's biggest surprises and certainly the one with the biggest long-term effect on the league.

Lindgren leads Caps back to playoffs

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In the summer of 2022, the Washington Capitals signed two goaltenders to multi-year contracts.

The first, Darcy Kuemper, was coming off a Stanley Cup triumph with the Colorado Avalanche. Naturally, he received the headlines with his prior success and $26.25-million commitment.

The second flew under the radar. After a stellar season in the AHL and impressive NHL results in a tiny five-game sample, the Capitals rolled the dice on Charlie Lindgren on a three-year contract at a minuscule $1.1-million cap hit, presumably to be a backup.

Fast forward two seasons and it's Lindgren, not Kuemper, who's leading the Capitals back to the playoffs.

The numbers since March, as Washington pushed to make the postseason, are telling:

Player Games Record SV% Shutouts
Lindgren 22 13-7-2 .916 3
Kuemper 4 0-2-0 .869 0

Given Kuemper's experience and cap hit, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him take over if Lindgren falters early against the New York Rangers. But entering the postseason, there's no doubt it's Lindgren's crease.

Few saw the Capitals as a playoff team at the start of the season. Nobody envisioned it would be on the back of Lindgren.

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