NEW YORK (AP) - Jacques Lemaire’s exit was hardly unexpected. The Chicago Blackhawks’ near departure was almost a much bigger stunner.
Lemaire said goodbye to the New Jersey Devils for the second straight year after the club he took over in midseason finished a rare non-playoff campaign with a 3-2 victory Sunday over the playoff-bound Boston Bruins.
The 65-year-old Lemaire took over for the fired John Maclean in December after retiring following last season, and led the Devils on an amazing run that got them close to their 14th straight playoff appearance before falling short.
“I still do think that I made the right decision last year, but I am really happy I took the job for the rest of the season,” Lemaire said.
The Blackhawks will get a chance to defend their first Stanley Cup title since 1961, but they had to sweat it out until Sunday night. Had they missed the playoffs, they would’ve had only themselves to blame.
Chicago kicked off the final day of the NHL regular season with a home game against the Detroit Red Wings, who were locked into the third seed in the Western Conference. The Blackhawks knew one point would secure a place in the playoffs, and two would push them up to No. 5.
They got neither in a 4-3 loss.
With one more chance to back in Sunday night, the Blackhawks got a reprieve when the Dallas Stars lost 5-3 in their former home of Minnesota and handed the No. 8 seed to Chicago in the final game of the regular season. The Blackhawks will take on the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks in the first round.
“It was in our control, and we didn’t win,” Stars forward Brad Richards said.
The same scenario played out with slight variations on consecutive days to determine the eighth and final teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences.
On Saturday, the New York Rangers beat the New Jersey Devils to stay alive in the East, and then got the required help when Carolina lost at home to the Tampa Bay Lightning when a victory would’ve put the Hurricanes into the playoffs.
The Rangers earned the berth that seemed unlikely hours earlier and will face the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the first round for the second time in three years.
The other Eastern matchups that were all decided by Saturday night. The No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers, who reached the Stanley Cup finals against Chicago last year out of the seventh-seeded position, will face the surging Buffalo Sabres; No. 3 Boston, the Northeast Division champions, will play longtime Original Six rival Montreal; and the injury-depleted Pittsburgh Penguins, who probably won’t have captain Sidney Crosby in the first round and will certainly be without Evgeni Malkin for the rest of the season, will take on the fifth-seeded Lightning.
Out West, besides Vancouver’s matchup with Chicago, No. 2 San Jose will take on seventh-seeded Los Angeles in the third playoff matchup between California teams; No. 3 Detroit will face sixth-seeded Phoenix for the second straight year; and fourth-seeded Anaheim will play No. 5 Nashville.
Three California teams reached the playoffs, while only two of Canada’s six clubs (Montreal and Vancouver) are represented.
The Canucks rode the amazing Sedin twins to the club’s first Presidents’ Trophy win as the NHL’s best club in the regular season.
Last season, Henrik Sedin won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring champion. This time, twin brother Daniel took the title with 104 points _ five more than Lightning forward Martin St. Louis and six ahead of Anaheim’s Corey Perry, the goal-scoring king with 50.
Daniel is the 10th player to win the points race in the past 10 seasons and he did it with the lowest point total since St. Louis had 94 in the 2003-04 season. Sedin’s win marked the first time brothers captured the scoring title in consecutive seasons.
Daniel led the NHL’s top power-play unit by scoring a league-best 18 goals and 42 points during advantages. He was second among forwards with a plue-30 rating and could be in line to keep the Hart Trophy _ given to the league MVP _ in the family household after Henrik won it last year.
Either way, the Canucks (54-19-9) are surely focusing on a run they hope ends with their first Stanley Cup championship after they put up a team-record 117 points.
“We’re having a lot of fun together,” Daniel Sedin said. “We’re looking forward to a great run. We’ve got to realize that we don’t need to do anything extra. It’s about coming to the rink and working hard and playing the right way.”
Regardless, the Canucks will be very busy on NHL Awards night on June 22 in Las Vegas as Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider will be honored with the William Jennings Trophy as the goalie tandem that allowed the fewest goals this season (185). It was the first Jennings win for the Canucks franchise.
Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins set an NHL record for save percentage when he finished at .938, surpassing Dominik Hasek’s .937 set in the 1998-89 season. He wrapped it up Saturday, and his league-low 2.00 goals-against average, with a 31-save effort in a 3-1 win over Ottawa. He sat out the Bruins’ season finale on Sunday.
“To be completely honest, I had a hard time getting it completely out of my mind the last couple of days,” Thomas said Saturday. “I think it’s the most reflective overall (of a goaltender’s season), but certainly not a perfect number.
“But overall it’s still the most important number.”
Perry wrested the Rocket Richard Trophy away from Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Crosby, who tied with a league-best 51 goals last season. Stamkos was the runner-up to Perry this season with 45 goals. Crosby was held to only 32 goals in 41 games because of a concussion that has kept him out of action since Jan. 5.
Perry scored 19 goals in his final 16 games to get to 50 goals for the first time in his six NHL seasons and fuel Anaheim’s surge from 11th place to the No. 4 seed in the West.
He is the third Ducks player to score 50, and his 11 game-winning goals tied Washington’s Alex Ovechkin for the most in the league. Half of Perry’s goals tied the game or put the Ducks ahead.
Lemaire isn’t the only coach saying goodbye. The Florida Panthers fired Pete DeBoer on Sunday, one day after the team finished its 10th straight season out of the playoffs. Florida’s 72 points were last in the Eastern Conference and the third-fewest in the 30-team NHL.
Ottawa, which finished third to last in the East _ just two points ahead of Florida _ dismissed coach Cory Clouston and two assistants on Saturday after the Senators failed to qualify for the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
Edmonton (25-45-12) finished last in the overall NHL standings for the second straight season.
“You can’t dress up a 30th-place finish by suggesting we did a whole lot right, quite honestly,” Oilers coach Tom Renney said. “But what we did do is stay with it. We integrated some young people into the lineup. They got an opportunity to play and learn and grow and develop.”
One final goodbye took place Sunday when Colorado defenseman Adam Foote played his final NHL game.
Foote, the Colorado captain who played through a leg injury, announced Friday that he was retiring after 19 NHL seasons, all but two with the Avalanche-Quebec Nordiques franchise.
(This version CORRECTS Updates with quotes and Tim Thomas record; corrects Western playoff matchups.)
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