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NHL regular season to begin Saturday with games in Prague and Stockholm

STOCKHOLM, Sweden - Daniel Alfredsson has spent the last few days enjoying the spotlight in his native Sweden, but now the Ottawa Senators captain is ready to get down to business.

The Senators spent the first four days of their European road trip in Alfredsson's hometown of Goteborg before heading to Stockholm, where the Sens will kick off the regular season against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday (2:45 p.m. ET).

"It's been unbelievable," the veteran winger said Friday. "It probably won't sink in until I get back to Ottawa next week and kind of relax and enjoy it all. It's been a great experience so far, a tremendous ego trip for me.

"Now we know the season starts."

The teams will play again Sunday at the Globe Arena before returning to North America. The New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning will also open overseas with games Saturday (noon ET) and Sunday in Prague.

Ottawa arrived in Stockholm on Friday for an afternoon practice but Alfredsson opted not to skate, citing "bumps and bruises." He is expected to play Saturday.

Centre Mike Fisher is more doubtful for the Senators because of a groin problem. Pittsburgh winger Petr Sykora also has a groin problem and his status for the opener is unclear.

While the NHL might consider Ottawa-Pittsburgh a fitting matchup between the Sens' Swedish star and Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, the face and future of the league, the teams see it differently.

They have developed a rivalry that started when some players for their American Hockey League affiliates, Binghamton and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, faced each other regularly during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.

Things escalated the in the NHL post-season the past two years.

In the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2007, Ottawa swept a young Penguins team that ended a six-year post-season drought and the Senators went on to reach the Stanley Cup final. In a first-round rematch last spring, Pittsburgh returned the favour, sweeping Ottawa on its way to the final.

"It's been intense the past couple years," Crosby said. "Two years in a row in the playoffs will do that pretty easily. That's to be expected."

Crosby said he expects the Penguins to be received as the underdog because of Alfredsson, who has 18 goals and 30 assists in 47 career games against the Penguins.

Alfredsson will be at his familiar spot at right wing with centre Jason Spezza and left-winger Dany Heatley, even though first-year Ottawa coach Craig Hartsburg split them up for a time during the pre-season.

Crosby, 21, who is one goal shy of 100 for his career, is expected to have two new wingers for this game. On the right side, Miroslav Satan replaces Marian Hossa, who signed with Detroit in the off-season. Ruslan Fedotenko is expected on Crosby's left side. Satan and Fedotenko were with the New York Islanders last season.

Two games in two nights in the same arena against the same opponent is an oddity for NHL teams.

"It's a quick turnaround," Alfredsson said. "Hopefully, we can win the first game (to make) them feel like they have to come out strong the next game, and then we can take advantage of that."

Last year, the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings opened the season with two games in London, and the NHL is looking to expand its presence in Europe.

Crosby, whose team lost in the Stanley Cup final to the Detroit Red Wings last season, said he's been impressed by the European fans during the last week, which included practices in Stockholm and an exhibition game in Finland.

"They support hockey pretty well from what I've seen," he said.

Several North American teams, including the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, have played exhibitions here throughout the years, but this is the first time the NHL regular season has opened in Scandinavia.

The Globe Arena, a huge golf-ball shaped facility, can be seen from many parts of the city and has hosted both World Cup and world championship games.

Alfredsson, who helped Sweden win Olympic gold in 2006, had two points as Ottawa beat his former team Frolunda 4-1 to close out the pre-season with a 4-2-0 record.

The Czechs, however, are likely disappointed that Jaromir Jagr is no longer a member of the New York Rangers. The team will feature Czechs Petr Prucha and Michal Rozsival in the two games against Tampa Bay.

"It's fun that both teams have some Czech players and they get to play before their hometown friends and family," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

Tampa Bay forward Vaclav Prospal is looking forward to the two-game set.

"It's a special feeling that I can play an NHL game in my country in front of my family members and all the friends," Prospal said. "For me personally, the greatest thing is that my teammates who are here with us get a chance to see where we're coming from and they get to know the Czech Republic a little bit. Hopefully we're going to start the season on a good note here in Prague."

The games in Prague - the first between NHL teams in the Czech Republic - will be played at the O2 Arena, which was sold out in hours. Thursday's open practice by the teams was watched by some 8,500 people.

"We did some very unique things in our practice that made you think the guys were trying to put on a bit of a show, but it was good," Rangers coach Tom Renney said. "The enthusiasm is certainly there. I remember back to the '04 world championships here and it was just an incredible environment."


With files from The Associated Press.



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