After dragging its fans through another draining labor dispute, the National Hockey League (NHL) returns tomorrow promising supporters more bang for their buck and a playoff chase sure to have hockey hearts pumping.
Having settled a 113-day lockout in time to run a shortened season, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the players and teams offered apologies to fans along with discounted tickets, merchandise, free parking and open practices.
However, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk said that while free hot dogs are nice, having a winning team is more important.
That is particularly true this season as the NHL’s 30 clubs scramble to make up for the revenue shortfall during the lockout by making the playoffs and securing additional home games.
What is normally a grueling seven-month 82-game marathon will instead be a condensed, thrill-a-minute 48-game sprint to the post-season, where a minor slump or injury could cost a team a shot at the Stanley Cup.
“It is going to be excitingly bizarre,” St Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters. “There are going to be games where no lead is safe. You are going to have to fight through that and keep the train on the tracks because there are going to be some emotional roller coasters players and fans are going to go through.”
The Pittsburgh Penguin are widely considered favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup when the playoffs finally reach a climax in late June. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who missed most of the past two seasons recovering from concussion-like symptoms, is fit and ready to lead a powerhouse lineup that features reigning NHL Most Valuable Player and scoring champion Evgeni Malkin.
As Crosby, the face of the NHL, spent the lockout at home while appearing regularly at labor talks, Malkin was playing in his native Russia and arrives at training camp in top shape, having been among the Kontinental Hockey League’s top scorers.
The New York Rangers, Pittsburgh’s Atlantic division rivals, also look ready to challenge for a championship, having upgraded their roster after finishing first in the Eastern Conference and falling two wins shy of a Stanley Cup Finals berth last year.
In one of the off-season’s biggest moves, the Rangers landed former goal-scoring champion Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets, adding more firepower to a lineup including 40-goal scorer Marian Gaborik. With a solid defense backed by reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers and Penguins could battle all the way to the Eastern Conference final.
The season opens tomorrow with 26 teams in action, including reigning Stanley Cup champions the Los Angeles Kings, who will unveil their championship banner before opening the defense of their crown against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Kings will start the season without top center Anze Kopitar, the Slovenian having injured his knee while playing in Switzerland, and hope netminder Jonathan Quick, voted the most valuable player of last year’s playoffs, is back in top form.
The frugal Minnesota Wild, who have missed the playoffs the past four seasons, will be looking to end that drought after signing marquee free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year contracts that transformed the struggling franchise from a bottom-10 team into a potential playoff qualifier overnight.