Will the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins or Minnesota Wild Lose First?
The Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota Wild were all tasked with tough back-to-back games to open the shortened 2013 NHL season.
After only a week of training camps to prepare, it would have been easy to assume that these squads would come out flat on their second night of competition. If anyone was doubting any of these three contenders coming into the year, they might want to put those thoughts on hold for now.
I had the chance to watch at least one or two periods of each of these teams play over the weekend, and while 2-0 to open the season doesn't win you the Stanley Cup, the Wild, the Penguins and the 'Hawks all looked outstanding.
The Wild came in to the year with higher expectations than ever before.
The offseason additions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, along with the debut of Mikael Granlund, had fans in the State of Hockey buzzing about finally taking a run at the Stanley Cup.
The additions are paying dividends already. Zach Parise has a goal and two assists through his first two games with the Wild, and he made an incredible impact on their power play right from the get-go. The guys looked energized and dynamic with the extra man.
Dany Heatley may be the biggest beneficiary of the addition of Parise. He had more jump in his step over the weekend than he has had in a long while. Heater came up with two goals and an assist through the Wild's first two games.
If the Heatley-Koivu-Parise line continues to dominate like this, Minnesota may not have to wait long for a prolonged run at the Cup.
While it was offense that won the game against the Colorado Avalanche, it was superb defense and goaltending from backup Josh Harding that stole the show during the team's home opener against the Dallas Stars.
The game ended 1-0, with the Wild showing they knew more than one way to win a hockey game.
Minnesota has a stern test against the Nashville Predators on Jan. 22, before taking on the Detroit Red Wings on the Jan. 25. They could very well take both of those games and end up at 4-0.
Then, it'll get its first true test against the reigning Central Division Champions, the St. Louis Blues. The Blues took the Red Wings apart in their home opener and appear to be among the best teams in the NHL. Make no mistake about it—this could be a Western Conference Finals preview.
The undefeated road could end here for the Wild, but this is certainly a game on the calendar worth circling.
The Wild weren't alone with their prominent display of offensive skills right out of the gate, though.
The 'Hawks stomped a mud hole into the LA Kings after watching a Stanley Cup banner raised to the rafters and didn't slow down one bit against the Phoenix Coyotes.
They scored 11 goals in their first two games, and the combo of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews was all but unstoppable. Perhaps it's the solo hotel rooms?
Regardless of the inspiration, and as scary as it is, these two weren't even the best players on the ice for Chicago. That distinction belongs to the freshly healthy Marian Hossa, who is currently leading the NHL in goals with five.
It's great to see him back to full speed, to say the least. There are few players in the league that hustle on both sides of the puck like Hossa, and the lockout (oddly) might have put his career back on the right track.
After time to heal from that concussion, he looked outstanding.
The question mark for the 'Hawks heading into the season was in net, and both Corey Crawford and Ray Emery were as good as they needed to be. With the offense clicking like it is right now, Chicago just needs to not lose games because of goaltending to stay in good shape.
The winning streak could come to a halt (again, as fate would have it) against the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 22. That should be an absolutely spectacular game, with the vaunted 'Hawks offense trying to solve the neutral zone muck that is the Blues.
If they can get through the Blues, the Dallas Stars are next, followed by the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings, and those are all very winnable games. To make it out of the month without a loss, they'd have to down the also-impressive (and aforementioned) Minnesota Wild.
Can they do it? Sure, Why not?
Arguably the most impressive team over the weekend was the Penguins.
They can roll four lines like just about no one else in the NHL and have unparalleled depth and speed. The Pens tomahawked the Philadelphia Flyers in Philadelphia to open the season and then embarrassed the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Going into Philadelphia, beating the Flyers in their home opener, and then going into New York and doing the same should serve notice to the rest of the league—the Penguins are back, and they are for real.
The scary thing is that it hasn't just been Sidney Crosby dominating and the Pens going along for the ride. No. 87 is still looking for his first goal and only has one assist, despite looking solid against the Flyers and the Rangers.
Evgeni Malkin, too, is looking for his first goal of the season, but he does have four helpers as he and James Neal have been a collective buzzsaw to start.
Which team has the best chance of ending the month without a loss?
The scoring has come from all over the place, and guys like Brandon Sutter and Tyler Kennedy are showing up in all kinds of ways.
Tack on the duo of Marc Andre-Fleury and Tomas Vokoun, and this is going to be a hard Penguins team to stop. If the Rangers and Flyers can't down them or even make games look competitive for more than a few minutes, then who can?
The Pens have the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators and the New York Islanders up next before taking on the Rangers again to end the month.
All of these are winnable games, and we could easily be looking at an undefeated Pittsburgh team heading into February.
Franklin Steele is a hockey analyst for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for someone to talk hockey with 24/7, or like him on Facebook so you can say you liked him before all your friends. He'll make you chili and send you an Internet high-five.
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