Thursday, October 7, 2010

A look ahead


If there's anyone out there who's a late riser (this guy), you might wake up tomorrow and find you've missed a period or so of the NHL season. Because holy crap, it starts at freaking noon Eastern Thursday.

So, without further ado, a look ahead at Thursday's NHL slate:

Carolina vs. Minnesota in Finland, Noon EDT, Versus

The latest in what has become an annual NHL tradition of sending teams overseas is the first game of the 2010-11 season, pitting the Minnesota Wild against the Carolina Hurricanes. Both teams are coming off disappointing campaigns of a year ago, when a truly dreadful start doomed Carolina's season and Minnesota struggled under first-year coach Todd Richards.

For the Finnish fans, they won't be disappointed. The Hurricanes feature Jussi Jokinen, Joni Pitkanen and Tuomu Ruutu and the Wild boasts Mikko Koivu, Niklas Backstrom and the best of them all, Antti "Mittens" Miettinen.

Koivu and Backstrom drive Minnesota and it will on be their shoulders more than any others that will determine how successful the Wild are. Joining them will be Martin Havlat and stalwart Andrew Brunette. Many eyes will be on Guillaume Latendresse, rejuvenated after being acquired from Montreal, to see if he can duplicate or improve upon his 27 goals from last season.

Carolina must overcome the loss of Ray Whitney and will rely even more on young captain Eric Staal, who had "only" 29 goals, considered subpar for him. He did miss 12 games because of injury. The problem is, outside Staal and Jokinen, there are few proven offensive contributors. Cam Ward, the player most seeking redemption after appearing in only 47 games, will need to be at his best.

Philadelphia at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m., Versus

One of the fiercest rivalries in sports kicks off the first season at Pittsburgh's new Consol Energy Center. And even if it wasn't a cross-state clash, it promises to be a good one. Together, these teams represented the Eastern Conference in the last three Stanley Cup finals, with the Penguins winning in 2009.

Pittsburgh's core is unchanged. Sidney Crosby is coming off a Rocket Richard Trophy-winning season, Evgeni Malkin appears to be reinvigorated with fresh new linemates (good ones!), and Marc-Andre Fleury is between the pipes. Both Malkin and Fleury struggled through subpar seasons, but Mike Comrie and Eric Tangradi look to provide Malkin with actual ability and a revamped defense corps and renewed team commitment to defense should be a boost to Fleury.

The Flyers had even fewer changes. Captain Mike Richards is still good, sniper Jeff Carter is a constant thorn to the Penguins, and they still don't have a goalie. Philadelphia boasts one of the most talented group of forwards including Danny Briere, Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk. Scott Hartnell is one of the more successful pests around and Chris Pronger anchors a strong group of blue liners. Michael Leighton returns in goal but an injury will keep him out of action for several weeks.

Montreal at Toronto, 7 p.m., RDS

Rivalry day continues with two teams and two fan bases who really don't like the other. Working in the Maple Leafs' favor is having the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft in their lineup there's just about nowhere to go but up after finishing at the bottom of the conference. There is some talent in the Toronto organization, headlined by Phil Kessel, newly acquired Kris Versteeg and Tyler Bozak, and the defense, led by new captain Dion Phaneuf, will be a pain to play against.

Not working in Toronto's favor is having to play against Jaroslav Halak, last year's playoff darling who almost singlehandedly got the Canadiens to the brink of the Stanley Cup final they're still a team with many growing pains ahead. Montreal, led by Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, will look to take advantage of the young Leafs. Michael Cammalleri will miss this game after being suspended for a nasty slash on Islanders rookie Nino Nerisofjasdfkaslfajoew. All eyes will be on Carey Price. Will this finally be the year he's good?

Calgary at Edmonton, 10 p.m., CBC

Last year's Battle of Alberta didn't end nearly soon enough (three meetings in October, five before Jan. 1), so the NHL decided it better get a faster start this season. In 2009-10, it was Calgary's second game before meeting the Oilers. Now it's the first game for both.

The Flames provided the biggest headscratcher in the offseason, signing Olli Jokinen - whom they traded last season after a disappointing 19 goals in 75 games with Calgary - for two years. Jokinen's presence puts in jeopardy the chance of Jarome Iginla having a rebound year, especially if the two play together (you know, because it worked so well before.) Rene Bourque is a threat when healthy, and their best defenseman is Mark Giordano. Don't let that overrated bloke Jay Bouwmeester tell you otherwise.

One problem: Miikka Kiprusoff is not aging well. He reversed a four-year trend where his GAA kept rising and his save percentage kept dropping, but whether that was a fluke remains to be seen.

Edmonton somehow has struck it rich (Get it? Oilers? Getting rich? Anyway) by having some of the best young talent at the forward position. First, there's No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall. Joining him are youngsters Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, who could soon end the Oilers' recent misery. Just don't ask for tips from Sheldon Souray. Edmonton will still be some years away from contending.

Chicago at Colorado, 10 p.m., Versus

When it comes to puzzlers, the last game is the king on Opening Night. The defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks are... playing their first game on the road? What gives, schedule makers?

In any case, despite Chicago's overhaul after winning the Cup, the team is still loaded in talent. Sure, the Blackhawks have a new goalie (out is winner Antti Niemi, in is Marty Turco) and lost a lot of their depth, but their studs in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith are still there. Those who sleep on Chicago because of its offseason do so at your own peril.

The Avalanche were last year's Cinderella team until a late-season slide nearly derailed their playoff aspirations. But with Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Chris Stewart and Craig Anderson, this team should continue to improve.

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