Ladies and gentlemen, hockey season has arrived.
In just two short days, the puck will be dropped on the Boston Bruins 2009-2010 season. And with it comes the usual air of anxiety, excitement, and for the first time in several years, a cause for optimism on Causeway Street.
Unlike years past, the usual gloom-and-doom mentality is no longer viable for Bruins fans. Bruins management, anchored by general manager Peter Chiarelli, has assembled an invaluable collection of playmakers, grinders, and enforcers alike to ensure the B's will be a force in the Northeast for years to come.
Coincidentally enough, the Bruins' team image seems to have been unwittingly summed up perfectly by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick: "It's not about collecting talent, it's about building a team".
That ideology seems to have found its way up I-93 and into the offices of Bruins management: Out with prima donna sniper Phil Kessel, in with image-less role players that will do nothing but help the Bruins progress towards their ultimate goal.
The foundation is there. How will the team respond? We're about to find out.
What To Look For in October
Like any NHL team, the Bruins have a lot of question marks facing them as they take the ice against the Washington Capitals Thursday night.
Who will replace Phil Kessel's productivity? Will Bergeron return to pre-concussion form? Can Thomas repeat last year's performance?
Surely, these questions will be answered eventually. But don't expect to cross them all off in one night, or one month.
Unless the B's outscore their opponents by five goals in every game this month, there will be critics who say the Bruins can't score without Kessel.
This is not true.
Different players will pick up the slack, but Boston is in fact facing some tough competition in this opening month. Expect to see low-scoring games against teams like Washington (10/1), Carolina (10/3), Philadelphia (10/22), and New Jersey (10/29).
However, expect to see the offensive guns return to the '08-'09 form in the stretch of games between 10/8 and 10/21. It should be assumed that returning sniper Marco Sturm will be champing at the bit to take advantage of the sub-par defensive squads on teams like Colorado, Nashville, and New York (Islanders).
The pressure being put on the Bruins to end Boston's Stanley Cup drought is apparent. They will be under the gun and under the microscope for most of October, and even more so in April. The media, along with the fanbase, are generally most concerned with how the team performs at the beginning and the end of the season.
Accomplishments earned in the mid-season time period are rarely remembered (hear anybody talking about last year's 23-3 record run last November and December?).
How will the Bruins respond to that pressure early on? We should have a good idea after the first two games of this year's campaign. Boston faces Alex Ovechkin and the high-flying Washington Capitals on opening night, and then gear up for a playoff series rematch against the recent-rival Carolina Hurricanes just two days later.
Not exactly an easy preamble.
While some fans may expect the B's to obliterate both opponents and move on with the season, a more realistic expectation is to gain at least one point from each contest. Coming out of opening weekend with two-to-four points may give the team a boost as they head into a lighter stretch of opponents.
It's a marathon, not a sprint.
While it would be great for Boston to return to the form that led them to the best record in the Eastern Conference last season right out of the gate, fans shouldn't be reaching for the panic button if the B's aren't at the head of the pack early on.
Remember, the Bruins finished last October with a 5-3-3 record. Hardly earth-shattering.
For a moment, disregard your fantasy draft. Stop discussing your expectations for this season, and stop the obligatory Bettman-bashing.
A meaningful hockey game is going to be on TV.
Don't miss the season opener against the Washington Capitals this Thursday on Versus. A possible playoff-preview featuring some of the greatest players in the league today, it's sure to be a tough game for both teams.
The Caps had the Bruins number in the regular season last year, but the B's have long memories and high expectations entering this year. It's sure to be one of the best games of October.
A season can't be won or lost in the first game of the year, but the pace of that game can dictate how a team will play further down the road. Which just gives us all more incentive to be glued to the TV Thursday night.
In the coming months, there is sure to be a lot going on in the Hub of Hockey. There will be time for speculation, and time for excitement. For now, let's all just be thankful a new season is upon us.