By Jason Karnosky, AllPuck.com
The calendar year is over. Find out the five hockey players who made the biggest impact in 2011:
1) Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
In the summer of 2011 the Boston Bruins ended a 39-year Stanley Cup drought. The biggest reason for rain in the Hub: Goaltender Tim Thomas, who posted one of the greatest seasons ever by a goaltender.
In his remarkable 2010-11 season, Thomas claimed a rare trifecta: The Vezina Trophy as the National Hockey League’s best goaltender, the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs and posting his name on hockey’s most revered trophy.
Yet those accolades only begin to tell the Thomas story. During the regular season Thomas claimed the league’s best save percentage (.938) and goals against average (2.00) since the lockout, while reasserting his position as the Bruins’ top goaltender above Tuukka Rask, who usurped the University of Vermont product a year prior.
Thomas only continued his brilliance in the playoffs. After losing the first two games to Montreal, Thomas stymied the Canadiens, then helped the Bruins erase the ghosts of losing a 3-0 series lead against Philadelphia one year earlier with a dominant five-game series against the Flyers.
In the final two rounds Thomas found yet another level, shutting out Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals (making 24 saves), before allowing just eight goals in seven games against Vancouver in the finals.
To date in 2011-12, the 37-year-old Thomas owns a record of 16-6-0, carries the league’s fifth best goals against average (1.94) and ranks second in the NHL with a .939 save percentage.
2) Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks
Offensively, Kesler reached the 40-goal plateau for the first time in his career (he never scored more than 26 in a season prior), then was dominant in the playoffs, contributing seven goals and 19 points. Kesler’s brilliance reached its peak in the second round against Nashville, where the vocal American supplied 11 points (five goals and six assists) in the Canucks’ six-game series victory.
On the defensive side Kesler was even better, shutting down talents like Patrick Kane and Joe Thornton in the playoffs, and capturing the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward.
Kesler’s impact was noticed most in the Stanley Cup finals after an injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against San Jose. Extremely limited, Kesler was unable to spark an offense that managed just eight goals in a seven-game series loss to the Bruins.
Despite missing games to start the 2011-12 season due to lingering injury issues, Kesler is again playing at a near point-a-game game pace (28 in 34 games).
3) Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks
Offensively, the tenacious Perry wreaked havoc on the NHL’s legion of netminders, beating them 50 different times to earn his first ever Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s leading goal scorer.
Perry was at his most dominant force in the month of April, when Ducks used an 11-3-0 record to attain home-ice advantage from the ranks of the playoff bystanders. During that remarkable month the gritty power forward found twine on 15 different occasions.
In the playoffs Perry played at over a point a game pace (eight in six games). Unfortunately, it was not enough to orchestrate a Ducks victory over Nashville. At least Perry was still rewarded for his efforts, earning the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.
Though Anaheim remains mired in a 10-21-6 season to date in 2011-12, Perry continues to provide offense – 14 goals and 29 points in 37 games.
4) Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning
Mired in a salary mess left behind from the team’s surprise run to the Stanley Cup in 2004, new general manager Steve Yzerman made a string of successful changes, including hiring coach Guy Boucher and acquiring goaltender Dwayne Roloson.
But the biggest reason why Lightning rebounded to the playoffs was due to the stunning play of former NHL M.V.P. St. Louis.
After struggling through disappointing seasons in 2007-08 and 2008-09, St. Louis reignited offensively when sniper Steven Stamkos was added to Tampa Bay’s roster.
Finding a niche as Stamkos’ setup man, St. Louis’ point total rose to 94 in 2009-10, then 99 a year ago as he helped the Lightning post a record of 46-25-11. The diminutive forward finished as the league’s second leading scorer (behind only Daniel Sedin), earned a most valuable player nomination and pushed Tampa Bay to within one victory of a berth in the finals.
During Tampa Bay’s surprise run, St. Louis contributed 10 goals and 10 assists. Though slowed by a left eye injury, St. Louis is still carrying a pace of 30 points in 32 games this season.
5) Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
During Boston’s fabled run, Chara led a Bruins defense that allowed only eight goals in the seven game finals series, and which pitched a shutout against Tampa Bay in Game 7 the Eastern Conference finals.
Always matched up against the opponent’s top forwards, Chara dazzled in his shutdown role, finishing with a playoff-best rating of plus-16, while logging nearly 28 minutes per game.
Chara also led the NHL in plus/minus during the regular season carrying a +33 rating on a club that won a Northeast Division title. For his efforts, the hulking defenseman was again a finalist for the Norris Trophy, losing to seven-time winner Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit.
To date in 2011-12, Chara has managed to avoid a championship hangover by providing seven goals and 23 points of offense for a Boston team that leads the NHL both in goals scored per game (3.4) and in goals allowed per contest (just 1.9).