There were some surprises in the final NHL standings this season. In the Western Conference's Pacific Division, the San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes, and Los Angeles Kings all vaulted over the Dallas Stars, who missed the playoffs in a very close race. San Jose had 99 points, Phoenix and Los Angeles 95 each, and Dallas 90. The conference's Northwest Division also had a close race. Colorado led with 99 points, Vancouver was second with 94, and Edmonton had 92 points, good enough for third place but not good enough to get into the playoffs.
In the Northeast Division of the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins jumped from fourth to first with 101 points, just 1 point better than the second-place Toronto Maple Leafs. Four of the division's five teams made the playoffs. The Carolina Hurricanes were the surprise winners of the Southeast Division, and the only team from that division to get into post-season play.
The Detroit Red Wings easily had the best record in the league with 51 wins and 116 points, 15 more than the Bruins. No other team in the Western Conference had more than 100 points. The Philadelphia Flyers had 97 points to lead the Atlantic Division, just 1 point ahead of the New York Islanders and 2 ahead of the New Jersey Devils.
In the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Hurricanes eliminated the Devils in the first round, picking up two of their victories in overtime, and then beat the Canadiens in six games in the semifinal round. The Canadiens had defeated the Bruins in the first round. Toronto won two seven-game series, over Philadelphia in the first round and the Ottawa Senators in the semifinals.
Carolina beat Toronto in six games, including three 2-1 victories in overtime, to advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time.
The Red Wings, who had been disappointed in the playoffs three years in a row, including a first-round elimination the previous year, had first-round problems again. They lost the first two games to the Vancouver Canucks at home, then rallied to take the next four. After a five-game victory over the St. Louis Blues, they came up against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche, in the conference finals.
Peter Forsberg, who had missed the entire season with injury, was back with Colorado for the playoffs. He totalled 19 points in the first 14 playoff games, as the Avalanche won two seven-game series, over Los Angeles and San Jose.
Colorado took a 3-2 lead over Detroit in a series of close games, four decided by 1 goal, three of them in overtime. With a chance to win at home, though, they were shut out by Dominik Hasek, 2-0, and Detroit then closed it out with a surprisingly easy 7-0 win.
Carolina pulled out a 3-2 overtime win in the first game of the Stanley Cup final at Detroit, but the Red Wings pulled away with four straight victories. Defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, the winner of the Norris Trophy during the regular season, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.
It was the record ninth Stanley Cup for Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman, who retired after the playoffs. Goalie Hasek also announced his retirement, although he returned to the Red Wings after a year out of the NHL. During nine seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, Hasek had won the Vezina Trophy six times and was the only goalie ever to win the Hart Trophy more than once.