Finally, the puck is about to drop on the 2011-12 NHL season.
Play begins Thursday night with a classic Montreal at Toronto matchup, the Sidney Crosby-less Penguins are in Vancouver and Ilya Bryzgalov makes his debut in goal in Philadelphia against the Bruins, who will raise the 2011 Stanley Cup banner at the TD Garden in a pre-game ceremony.
The Ottawa Senators open Friday night in Detroit and the Calgary Flames play host to Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
On Sunday, the new Jets era begins at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg against Montreal, and the Edmonton Oilers face the Penguins.
The Canadiens will have their off-season signing Erik Cole in the lineup, hoping the former Carolina Hurricane is the physical scoring winger they needed. Centre Blair Betts, plucked off waivers from Philadelphia on Wednesday, is also expected to face the Leafs.
It will be a Leaf debut for veteran defenceman John Michael Liles, although newcomer Tim Connolly is doubtful with a suspected shoulder problem and winger Clarke MacArthur is suspended. Toronto is trying to make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons since the 2004-05 lockout.
”It’s special for me to play in Toronto,” said Canadiens winger Michael Cammalleri. ”I grew up there and it’s where I spend most of my off-season.
”Opening night, Habs-Leafs, It’s a dream come true.”
The Bruins were surprise champions when they upset Vancouver in a seven-game final in June for their first Stanley Cup since 1972. They are back with largely the same team, plus US$5 million in salary cap space, hoping to be the first to repeat since the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings.
Not back is 43-year-old Mark Recchi, who retired. The Bruins are hoping to make up for it with a strong second season from 2010 second overall draft pick Tyler Seguin.
The Canucks also made few changes, and twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin are expected to battle once again for the league scoring lead with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis as well as the injured Crosby, if he doesn’t miss too many games.
Daniel Sedin won the Art Ross Trophy last season with 104 points, while Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks was top goal-scorer with 50.
Crosby is expected to sit out the Penguins’ opening trip, in which they will play in three of their opponents’ home openers. There is no word yet on when the team captain and perhaps the league’s best player will be ready.
The Cole Harbour, N.S., native has been out of action with concussion symptoms since a pair of hits to the head in early January. He has resumed skating, but won’t be cleared for contact at least until the team returns home.
The opener was to have been his first game in Vancouver since his overtime goal to win gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
“A little different watching,” Crosby said this week. “Still, some great memories there. And it’s nice to just be going with the team and starting a new season, even if I’m not playing. It’s kind of a fresh start and we all look forward to that.”
A five-time NHL scoring champion is back in the league as Jaromir Jagr signed a one-year US$3.3-million deal with the Flyers after two seasons in the KHL. He is expected to play on the top line with centre Claude Giroux, but it remains to be seen how effective the 39-year-old will be. Jagr is the all-time NHL points leader among active players with 1,599 in 17 seasons.
The Flyers are a team to watch this season as management blew up the club after a playoff collapse against Boston, sending captain Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings and scoring ace Jeff Carter to Columbus. Ville Leino also left as a free agent for Buffalo.
NHL hockey returns to Winnipeg after 15 years thanks to the sale of the former Atlanta Thrashers to True North Sports and Entertainment.
While the city is excited to have hockey back, it will be interesting to see how the crowd that snapped up tickets when news of their return was announced will welcome NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who is to attend the game. Some still blame him for the Jets’ departure to Phoenix in 1996, although he was also front and centre in bringing a team back.
The players have gone from empty seats in Atlanta to a city that lives and breathes hockey.
”It makes you feel good, gives you an extra boost and it makes you just want to win that much more,” said Jets star forward Evander Kane. ”That can only help in the wins and loss column.”
Another high profile free agent signing saw centre Brad Richards leave the Dallas Stars to ink a nine-year $60-million contract with the New York Rangers, who open in Stockholm on Friday against the Los Angeles Kings.
Anaheim and Buffalo also open in Europe, meeting Friday in Helsinki.
Top picks from the draft in June should also see their first action, including top pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with Edmonton, second pick Gabriel Landeskog with Colorado, fifth pick Ryan Strome with the New York Islanders, No. 6 Mika Zibanejad with Ottawa, No. 7 Mark Scheifele with Winnipeg and No. 8 Sean Couturier with Philadelphia.
Crosby’s injury helped prompt the league’s general managers to broaden the scope of Rule 48 to penalize not only blindside hits but any shot where ”the principal point of contact” is the head.
Former Detroit Red Wings star Shanahan, in the newly created job of director of player safety, spent the pre-season handing out unusually stiff suspensions for head hits and then explaining his decisions on video. His rulings include an eight-game ban that will cost the Columbus Blue Jackets new defenceman James Wisniewski US$536,000 in lost pay.
Now it will be seen if the same tough justice is handed out in the regular season.
There’s a nervy side to the season as the NHL and its players go into the final year of their post-lockout collective bargaining agreement. No talks are expected until after the all-star game Jan. 29 in Ottawa and major issues, including the players share of the revenue pie, must be settled.
And play resumes after a summer of sadness over the deaths of three past and present NHL tough guys: Derek Boogaard, Mark Rypien and Wade Belak. The deaths sparked debate on the physical and mental toll fighting takes on enforcers.
Hockey was rocked again when the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team from the KHL was killed in a plane crash.
Tributes to Lokomotiv, which included a handful of former NHL players and coaches, and the three other players are to be made in various ways. Teams have already been showing a tribute video prepared by the NHL.
”People and the game are resilient,” Bettman said of the deaths. ”The best way to honour those who are no longer with us is to focus on making next season even better.”