Gee, it's like the NHL likes having rivals kick off the season against each other. The Battle of Ontario. Two Western Canadian enemies. The past two Stanley Cup champions. One of the newest and most heated feuds in the league. You name it, and opening night has it.
What opening night also presents is the opportunity for each of those franchises, as well as those who will start their seasons in the coming nights, to start anew, clean the slate and start from scratch. The months-long wait has been longer for some franchises than others. And as teams take the ice tonight, dreams will come true for the young making their NHL debuts, while others hopping over the boards will embark on their swan-song campaigns. No matter what happens, though, there are sure to be a few memorable moments, and in celebration of that, we took a look at some of the best over the past 20 years, including a few memorable player debuts and the birth of new franchises:
HELLO, YOUNG PADAWANS (Oct. 6/7, 2000)
After years of discussions, the NHL finally reached the 30-team mark in 2000 with the arrivals of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild. For Minnesota, the return brought the joy of hockey back to the state following the loss of the North Stars back in 1993, while Columbus put down fresh NHL roots in Ohio. The Wild lost 3-1 to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and failed to win their first game until Oct. 18 against Tampa Bay. Columbus, meanwhile, dropped a 5-3 decision to the Chicago Blackhawks on opening night before securing a victory against the Calgary Flames two games later. Despite helping to grow both markets over time, success has been limited between the two clubs: the Blue Jackets and Wild have combined for just five playoff series victories, with Columbus' first coming this past season in a four-game upset of the dominant Tampa Bay Lightning.
HOCKEY'S BACK, BABY (Oct. 5, 2005)
One of the greatest moments in recent NHL history came after one of the darkest time periods the sport has ever seen. When all 30 teams opened up the 2005-06 season on Oct. 5, it marked the return of the NHL after a year-long work stoppage that resulted in the lost 2004-05 campaign. Notably, Ottawa Senators forward Dany Heatley became the first player to score in the shootout and the season saw the arrival of some of the sport's biggest stars, including Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne – oh, and Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, too. Storylines galore, it was a historic return for the NHL, which needed all the help it could get after the lockout.
WINNIPEG'S SOARING RETURN (Oct. 9, 2011)
Fans in Winnipeg had their team ripped out from under them and moved to Arizona in the mid-1990s, but in 2011, the Atlanta Thrashers – one of the expansion franchises that joined the NHL in 1999 – was sold to True North Sports & Entertainment, who dubbed the team the Jets ahead of the the 2011-12 season. The team, which sold out its barn in minutes ahead of their first season, debuted against the Montreal Canadiens but suffered a 5-1 defeat. It didn't matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. Jets fans were just happy to have their team back. Few fanbases are as passionate as Jets fans.
MATTHEWS' MONSTER NIGHT (Oct. 12, 2016)
My, oh my. Little more than 31 years after Wendel Clark became the first player to go No. 1 to the Maple Leafs, the team's next star in waiting didn't waste much time making an impact in the NHL. Playing against Toronto's Ontario rivals, the Ottawa Senators, Matthews scored two goals in the first period and another two in the second to become the first player in the modern era to score four goals in their NHL debut. For a team looking for its first Stanley Cup in nearly 50 years at the time, Matthews' presence offered a beacon of hope alongside fellow young stars Mitch Marner and William Nylander. The Leafs have yet to win a playoff round since the arrival of the talented trio, but Matthews has helped give hope to a franchise that is starved for a championship.
VEGAS' GOLDEN DEBUT (Oct. 6, 2017)
James Neal scored twice against his former team and helped the Golden Knights become the first expansion team since 1992 (Ottawa and Tampa Bay) to win their first game. A few nights later, nearly two weeks after the United States' deadliest mass shooting that claimed the lives of more than 50 people at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, Deryk Engelland delivered an emotional speech to a sold-out T-Mobile Arena. It was one of the most iconic moments of the season in what became one of the most incredible campaigns by an expansion franchise in sports history.
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