Early Impressions from the Long-Awaited Return of NHL Hockey
We're through only three days of this NHL season, the first 48-game schedule since 1994-95's shortened season. It's three more days than pessimistic fans expected out of this year's lockout, especially after the 2004-05 season was cancelled. But any other year, we'd be halfway through the season by now.
That being said, these impressions are coming from either one or two games played by every team in the league. "Early" is an understatement. And like Maple Leafs fans' playoff hopes, almost everything you read here may prove to be completely misguided mere weeks from now.
But while sports may be a waiting game, sports journalism is all about analyzing the present, whether it means overreacting or not. So let's have some fun with it, and draw conclusions based on the first 72 hours of the season:
Banner Ceremonies Don't Lead to Wins
Last year, the Bruins came out of the gate with a stinker after raising their Stanley Cup banner, losing 2-1 to the Flyers.
This year, the Kings found a way to top that by getting trounced 5-2 by the Blackhawks. Patrick Kane scored the first goal of the season less than four minutes into the first period, and Chicago would add three more before the two-minute mark of the second.
Perhaps there's something about those pregame ceremonies that just takes the motivation out of the players.
Eastern Conference Final Preview?
The Rangers opened the season on the road in Boston on Saturday, in a tilt between two teams that many think will make deep playoff runs once again.
Give the first game to the Bruins, who got back to their traditional means of winning—physical defensive play and a balanced offense—to take a 3-1 victory.
How quickly can the Rangers shake off the lockout rust after two losses in a row and get Brad Richards and Rick Nash clicking? We'll find out in the rematch on Wednesday.
Old Dogs, Old Tricks
"Is it 2012 or 1992?" fans might have asked after opening night, when the two leading scorers in the NHL were Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne.
Jagr scored a point on all four Stars goals, including a helper on fellow 40-year-old Ray Whitney's power-play goal, in a 4-3 takedown of the Coyotes; Selanne had two goals and two assists as the Ducks trounced the Canucks 7-3.
Don't be shocked if Jagr, Selanne and Whitney, among other ageless wonders, do well with fewer games over this condensed schedule.
The downward spiral in Philadelphia began when they were swept in the Eastern Conference semifinals two years ago and decided to dismantle that team.
As many ex-Flyers, including Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne, lifted last year's Stanley Cup in Los Angeles, the Flyers watched from home after losing in the conference semis once again.
After losing Jaromir Jagr to free agency and failing to bring in Shea Weber, this year's team doesn't look any better; after losing their first two games of the season to Pittsburgh and Buffalo, the same old questions about Ilya Bryzgalov's ability to be a top-flight goaltender are coming up already. It could be a long year for the Broad Street Bullies.
Talk about starting the season off on the right foot.
The Blackhawks, three years removed from an offseason that dismantled their Stanley Cup winner, have gotten back into their rhythm pretty quickly this year, scoring 11 goals against both of last year's Western Conference finalists in Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Marian Hossa leads the team with four goals and an assist for five points, while Patrick Kane has a goal and three assists for four points.
Canucks' Carousel in the Crease
You have to feel bad for Vancouver GM Mike Gillis, who has two goalies with fat contracts and no clear-cut starter after the past few days. Cory Schneider was signed to a three-year, $12 million deal so the Canucks could unload Roberto Luongo and his supposedly fragile psyche; after Anaheim lit Schneider up for five goals before the end of the second period on opening night, Luongo came in to great applause and stayed in net the following night against Edmonton. For a goalie who thought he was headed to Toronto or Florida this season, he's sure making a case to stay in the Pacific Northwest.
Wild Opening Weekend
Minnesota started out hot last season but failed to sustain it over the duration of the schedule, leading them to make a big splash in free agency by signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
So far, it's paying off to the tune of a 2-0 start, as the Wild took down Colorado 4-2 and Dallas 1-0 in back-to-back home games. Parise and Dany Heatley lead the scoring with three points apiece, while Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom have each won a game in goal.
Calder Trophy Favorite?
If you don't know the name Vladimir Tarasenko, get familiar, and fast.
Tarasenko was drafted by the St. Louis Blues 16th overall in 2010 and matured into a point-per-game player in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. He finally came to America this year and proceeded to score two goals on his first two shots against Detroit before adding another goal and two assists against Nashville.
He may not be able to sustain his hot start, but he's certainly earned the attention of fantasy hockey players everywhere.
Brand New Playoff Teams?
Having a shortened season may mean that this year's playoffs take on a different look than many years past.
For example, Columbus took three out of four points against perennial playoff teams Nashville and Detroit to start the year, while the St. Louis Blues and aforementioned Minnesota Wild also won both of their first two games.
But the Rangers and aforementioned Flyers have looked like the lockout hurt them, as each have a goal differential of minus-five in their first two games and haven't been able to get much of anything going. And how will the Red Wings overcome the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom, especially as they start the season with numerous injuries?
Who's Got a Chance at the Cup?
Two games is far too early to make playoff projections in an 82-game season, and it might be far too early in 48 games, too. But coming out of the gate, a few teams in each conference are making standout plays. Pittsburgh, with all of its stars healthy, and Boston, with its opportunistic offensive play, are the teams to beat in the East; Minnesota and St. Louis, two teams that have been on the way up for a while now, may follow in Los Angeles and Phoenix's footsteps and finally realize their potential this year.
Could we see a rematch of the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals, when Pittsburgh took down a different Minnesota team to win the Stanley Cup in six games? Or could the Bruins and Blues meet in the Finals for the first time since Bobby Orr scored the most famous goal in hockey history?
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.