Hockey fans are a happy bunch this week. After more than three months of waiting, we’re just days away from the return of games that count. The NHL’s opening night is almost here.
Well, make that opening nights, since the NHL basically stretches its debut into a two-part production. The season opens with four games on Wednesday night, followed by 12 more on Thursday. By the end of that second night of action, 28 out of the league’s 30 teams will have played at least once.1
The last two teams, the Hurricanes and Islanders, face each other in a home-and-home on Friday and Saturday.
And, of course, we’ll overanalyze all of it. One or two games out of an 82-game schedule is such a ridiculously small sample that we won’t able to draw any conclusions, but that doesn’t mean we won’t try. By Friday, we’ll be convinced we have most of these teams all figured out.
To help us get there, here are 14 story lines to overreact to as the 2014 season gets under way.
1. The Kings twist the knife.
For the second time in franchise history, the Los Angeles Kings will raise a Stanley Cup banner on Wednesday night. The game will mark the first meaningful hockey played at the Staples Center since the June night that ended with Alec Martinez’s championship-winning overtime goal, and the atmosphere should be electric.
And, in a delightful bit of league-sanctioned trolling, the Kings’ opponent will be the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks, of course, had the Kings down three games in their opening-round series last year, before collapsing and losing four straight. That loss sent San Jose into a franchisewide state of existential crisis, and the team still doesn’t seem to know which direction it’s headed this year.
This feels like the sort of game the Sharks will end up winning, marking the first step on a road to redemption that eventually returns them to the ranks of the league’s elite. But unless you’re a San Jose fan, a Kings win — especially one involving a big comeback — would probably be more fun.
2. Taking the Flames’ temperature
Calgary isn’t expected to be good this year; the team is young, it’s rebuilding, and nobody thinks it will challenge for a playoff spot.
But just how bad will the Flames be? More specifically, will they be bad enough to contend for the top pick in this year’s draft? Most seem to think they will, but then again, we thought that last year, and Calgary outperformed expectations just enough to finish well clear of the Sabres, Panthers, and Oilers. And the team has a decent goalie now, having signed Jonas Hiller as a free agent. While they almost certainly won’t make the playoffs, there’s at least a chance that this year’s Flames could be good enough to play themselves out of McDavid/Eichel territory.
We’ll get our first chance to see how they stack up against their fellow also-rans this week, as the Flames open with a pair of games against non-playoff teams. They host the Canucks on Wednesday, and then head to Edmonton to face the Oilers on Thursday.
3. Ryan Johansen and the Blue Jackets look for a quick start.
Until yesterday, Columbus was headed into the season in a tough spot. Forecast as a borderline wild-card team, the Blue Jackets looked like they’d go into the season missing their entire top line due to Nathan Horton’s bad back, Boone Jenner’s broken hand, and Ryan Johansen’s ongoing contract dispute.
Horton and Jenner are still out, but Johansen signed a three-year deal on Monday and should be in the lineup for the Blue Jackets’ opener. That’s good news for a team that will need every point it can get. More good news: The Jackets get to open on the road on Thursday with what should be an easy matchup against the lowly Sabres, followed by a three-game homestand. That all adds up to a chance for a decent start, for a team that looked like it was in trouble just a few days ago.
4. St. Louis is the center of attention.
Thursday’s game between the Rangers and Blues will give St. Louis fans their first chance to cheer on Paul Stastny in regular-season action. The former Avs center joined the Blues in July, signing a four-year, $28 million contract that carried the highest annual value of any free-agency deal. That’s a big investment, and Stastny will be under pressure to start paying dividends right away.
The game could feature another new-look center, although this one will have “St. Louis” on the back of his jersey instead of the front. The Rangers are toying with the idea of shifting Martin St. Louis to center while Derek Stepan is out with a broken fibula. The 39-year-old St. Louis has spent nearly his entire career on the wing, but certainly has the skill to adapt if called on. If he can make the move successfully, it would fill the one major hole in the Rangers’ early-season lineup.
5. Montreal provides an early test, part one.
After last year’s strong season and fun playoff run, the Canadiens will be looking to get out to a quick start with two early road games. And they’ll do it against a pair of teams that find themselves in transition.
Montreal opens in Toronto, in a classic rivalry matchup with plenty of history. The Leafs spent the preseason reworking their defensive system to mixed reviews, and this will be the first chance to see how it stacks up in games that matter. Toronto’s playoff chances will largely rest on the Maple Leafs’ ability to close their embarrassingly bad possession gap, and the speedy Canadiens will give them a chance to see if they’ve made any progress.
6. Montreal provides an early test, part two.
The Habs will be back in action on Thursday in Washington, where we’ll get our first regular-season look at Barry Trotz behind the Capitals bench. Every eye will be on Alexander Ovechkin, whose effort level and defensive game will be under a microscope all season long, but the Caps will also be deputing a new blueline featuring two expensive free agents, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.
The Leafs and Capitals are a pair of playoff bubble teams heading into the season with what could best be described as a fragile sense of optimism. Montreal will get the first chance to put a nice little dent in those hopes.
7. Ekblad debuts in Florida.
The rebuilding Panthers earned the first overall pick last year, thanks to a miserable season and some draft lottery luck. They used that selection on Aaron Ekblad, a polished defensemen who’ll make his debut on Thursday night when the Panthers head to Tampa Bay. It’s rare for a teenage defenseman to have much impact, but Ekblad could be an exception. Scouts love his poise and all-around game, and he’ll get plenty of opportunity to show what he can do on a Panthers team that doesn’t feature much star power.
Speaking of no. 1, that’s where plenty of experts have slotted the Lightning in their early Eastern Conference power rankings. Tampa Bay hit the 100-point mark last year, and the combination of offseason improvements and a roster full of young talent make the Lightning seem like a good bet to be even better this year. They’ll certainly have the opportunity for a quick start; of their first eight opponents, only one made the playoffs.
8. The Stars get a Central showdown.
Dallas had a big summer, acquiring Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky and landing itself on plenty of “biggest offseason winners” lists. But we’re still not sure how good the Stars can be — they’ll score a ton, but the blueline is still a question mark. Can they really measure up to established Central Division rivals like the Blues and Blackhawks?
It won’t take long for them to find out, as they’ll host the Hawks on Thursday. One way or another, this could be a nice little message-sender, and will give us an early indication as to whether this year’s Stars will serve as empty entertainment or something more.
9. Red-light watch in Nashville
The knock against last year’s Predators is that they couldn’t score; the knock against last year’s Senators is that they can’t keep the puck out of the net. Nashville responded by spending most of the offseason trying to address its flaw, trading for 40-goal man James Neal and signing several offensive-minded centers. The Senators chose to largely stay the course, hoping their goaltending duo of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner can rebound from disappointing seasons.
We’ll get an early hint as to which strategy worked out best, as the two teams face each other on Thursday in Nashville. The game should also mark the return to action of Predators’ goalie Pekka Rinne, who missed most of last season after injuring his hip.
10. When powerhouses reload
Last year, the Penguins and Ducks each won their divisions while combining for 225 points. Then, when the offseason arrived, both teams decided they still needed major improvements.
The Ducks traded for Ryan Kesler and said good-bye to their former starting goalie Jonas Hiller, while the Penguins fired their coach and GM and shook up much of their roster. They’ll face each other on Thursday, in what could be a Stanley Cup preview — or maybe just a matchup between two teams headed in the wrong direction. That all depends on whether you think these teams did enough to address their flaws.
Another similarity: Both teams’ goaltenders will be under a season-long spotlight. In Anaheim, those are Frederik Andersen and rookie John Gibson, two highly regarded young players without much NHL experience between them. In Pittsburgh, it’s veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, likely entering his final season as a Penguin. Fleury will be judged on what he does in the playoffs, but the Ducks will be looking for some early reassurance that their kids can handle the job.
11. The worst of the West (maybe)
When I unveiled my picks for the league’s worst teams, I included the Jets and Coyotes. Arizona fans pushed back hard, pointing out that the team had narrowly missed the playoffs last year and didn’t seem significantly worse on paper. Winnipeg fans mostly nodded, then took a stiff drink.
While neither team is the odds-on favorite in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes — that’s still the Sabres’ title to lose — they each face an uphill fight to reach the postseason. To have any hope of getting there, they’ll need to get in the habit of banking two points during matchups against the league’s weaker teams. One of them will do just that on Thursday, when the two teams face off in Arizona.
12. The Flyers look to avoid another slow start.
The consensus seems to be that the Flyers are a borderline playoff team — good enough to earn a spot in the Metro if things go well, but liable to drop out of the race if hit with injuries or an extended cold streak or two.
They’ll open with a tough matchup against the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners in Boston. Then they’ll head back to Philadelphia for their home open on Thursday. That game will see them face the Devils, one of the division rivals that’s looking to take the Flyers’ playoff spot. The Devils will be rested, while the Flyers will have already played and traveled, so this is a tough start to the schedule for Philadelphia and could leave them 0-2.
Normally we’d shrug that sort of thing off, but let’s remember that the Flyers started last season with three straight losses and responded by firing their coach. There’s no suggestion that Craig Berube would be in any similar danger with a slow start, but it’s fair to say the team would rather avoid any comparisons altogether by getting their first win out of the way early.
13. The Red Wings look to extend the streak.
Like the Flyers, the Bruins will head for the airport after Wednesday’s opener. They’re in Detroit on Thursday, for a Red Wings home opener that doubles as a playoff rematch.
Detroit didn’t give the Bruins much trouble in last year’s opening round, falling in five games. That series marked the 23rd straight season the Red Wings have appeared in the playoffs. They may have a tough time extending that streak this year, and could be without star center Pavel Datsyuk, who’s still recovering from a shoulder injury. The schedule-maker didn’t do the Wings any favors to start the season, as they open with the Bruins, Ducks, and then the Bruins again, and also face Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles before the end of the month.
14. The Avalanche get a rematch.
Colorado was the feel-good story of last year’s regular season, going from being the second-worst team in the league in 2012-13 to racking up 112 points and the Central Division title. But all that positivity dried up quickly in the postseason, as the Avs were upset by the Wild in the first round.
This year, the Avalanche have already been widely flagged as an inevitable disappointment, thanks to their awful possession numbers. No doubt they’d love to prove their critics wrong, and they’ll get a chance to start down that road on Thursday when they head to Minnesota to face the Wild in the first game of a home-and-home that concludes Saturday. A pair of Colorado wins in those games would be a nice confidence builder, especially after they struggled through a 1-5-2 preseason.
And besides, we can always count on Avalanche coach Patrick Roy to bring his very best on opening night.