NHL Opening Night: Previewing the 3 Opening Games of the 2011 Season
The 2011/12 regular season officially gets underway tonight, and with that come three marquee matchups on the NHL schedule. First the NHL has the defending Stanley Cup Champions opening up against the new look, and potential Eastern Conference champ contenders, Philadelphia Flyers in a tough battle that is sure to be entertaining.
Next up is an Original Six matchup, and legendary rivalry game between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. This should give us a good look at how the two teams will shape up in the upcoming months and if the Leafs will actually be playoff contenders in 2011/12.
Lastly, we round out a terrific evening of hockey with the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins visiting the still hurting Vancouver Canucks who are coming off that Game 7 loss to the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals a mere four months ago. The Canucks are aiming to go the way that the Pens of 2009 did and come off a Stanley Cup loss to win it the next season, so it is very fitting they start the year against Pittsburgh.
The NHL did a fantastic job of scheduling these opening night games, and they are sure to gain some new fans tonight.
Philadelphia Flyers at Boston Bruins
In a rematch of the Eastern Conference semifinals from a year ago that saw the Philadelphia Flyers swept by the Boston Bruins, the NHL has scheduled the first game of the 2011/12 season to take place between the two teams as the Bruins raise their sixth Stanley Cup banner in franchise history.
The Bruins and Flyers are being praised by many as two teams to look out for in the Eastern Conference this season and as possible Cup contenders. This makes this matchup that much more intriguing to hockey fans alike, and should be a good game.
The Flyers start the season with a revamped lineup. Gone are star players Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and in is a youthful group including the likes of Claude Giroux, James Van Riemsdyk, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds. The Flyers have a talented group of forwards heading into the season, and present a lot of speed up front, which could aid them against the Boston defense, which isn't the fasted in the world.
The Flyers are most improved in goal where they brought Ilya Bryzgalov in this offseason to give the Flyers their first solid goaltender in many years. The battle between Bryzgalov and Thomas should be intense throughout the season. With the exception of the addition of Andreas Lilja, the Flyers defense is unchanged coming into this contest, and is still among the best in the game posing problems if the Bruins are unable to penetrate the zone.
The Flyers have a different lineup in 2011/12, but it could be better than the lineup that saw them finished second in the Eastern Conference just one year ago.
The Bruins on the other hand, are largely unchanged from their championship team last year. They lost Tomas Kaberle, and Michael Ryder, and added Joe Corvo and Benoit Pouliot. The team that won the Cup is the same team that we will see on the ice. The Bruins will look to capitalize on any chemistry issues the Flyers still have coming into the regular season, and will look to Nathan Horton, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and David Krejci for offensive support. They shouldn't have too many worries with Tim Thomas in goal yet again for the team.
The Bruins will be riding high on momentum and adrenaline following the raising of the Stanley Cup banner to kick the season off, and shouldn't lose this game. It will be close though, but we give it to the Bruins in a 4-3 victory in the first of many closely contested games between the two sides this season.
Montreal Canadiens at Toronto Maple Leafs
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Hockey's most storied rivalry resumes this evening in Toronto. The Maple Leafs meet the Montreal Canadiens in an Original Six battle that has seen the two sides meet a total of 708 times, with the rivalry seemingly timeless. The Habs carry a record of 335-278-88-7 into tonight's opener all time against the Leafs.
The battle will be far more interesting in 2011/12 than it was in 2010/11 as the Leafs are a much better team than they were a year ago, and the competition level should be heightened against a consistently playoff bound team in the Habs.
Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs put a lot of effort in this offseason to improve their lineup. After losing out on the Brad Richards sweepstakes, Burke brought Tim Connolly in from Buffalo to line up with Phil Kessel, finally giving Kessel a linemate that can help him out offensively.
The welcomed additions of Cody Franson and John Michael-Liles to the blue line also give Toronto one of the best depth defenses in the league. Adding Matthew Lombardi up the middle with the forwards also provides the Leafs with a much needed veteran presence as well as secondary scoring. The new look Leafs could prove a difficult task for a streaky Habs team with a goalie in Carey Price that you can never be sure of night in and night out.
In saying this, Carey Price is out to prove the critics wrong yet again this year. Despite a first round exit to the Bruins in the playoffs a year ago, Price posted a career best 38 wins in 72 games last season, and though it will be difficult to improve on in 2011/12, Price will try to get his best out for tonight’s game.
Other than Price, the Canadiens lost countless players in the offseason including James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik. To address their lost players, the Habs added Erik Cole and Chris Campoli to bolster their lineup. Cole's experience and touch should help the Habs depth, and Campoli will provide the extra backup needed on a somewhat injury prone defense.
In the case of the battle tonight, the Leafs actually look to have the edge despite missing Connolly and Lombardi for their opening game, and should win this one. We predict a 3-1 victory for the Maple Leafs.
Pittsburgh Penguins at Vancouver Canucks
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We round out the night in Vancouver where the Canucks take on the Pens in the western time zone's only game of the night. The Canucks are still struggling to get over their heartbreaking collapse in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals to the Boston Bruins in seven games, but will need to refocus tonight on avenging the loss and returning to the Cup hungry team they were a year ago. The Penguins will be without Sidney Crosby in the game as he is still feeling the affects of his concussion from last season.
The Canucks enter the game with one major loss from last year in Christian Ehrhoff's departure to Buffalo in the offseason. Other than that, the noticeable hole in the offense will be the absence of Ryan Kesler on the second line who is still recovering from offseason hip surgery. Kesler is slated to return in 5-6 games, but the Canucks will be without him tonight.
The Canucks brought in Marco Sturm to play alongside Cody Hodgson and Mikael Samuelsson to start the year, and hope he can return to his prime after two rough years of decline in production. The Canucks are mostly the same team they were last year, and the Sedins-Burrows line will be largely counted on for the offensive production this season, and against the Pens.
The defense of the Canucks is mostly the same, but with Chris Tanev as a full-time starter. In goal, Roberto Luongo is putting more pressure than ever before upon himself, and will be looking to prove himself tonight. This game may come down to depth, and for the first time in a long time, the Canucks have solidified third and fourth lines.
Led by Jannik Hansen, Manny Malhotra and Max Lapierre, the Canucks could have two of the strongest depth lines in the league this season, and will be better than the Pens in that aspect tonight, which could be the difference maker.
The Pens enter the 2011/12 season hoping to return to glory and good health, with Evgeni Malkin back and seemingly ready to take over. Malkin dominated the preseason, and hopes to carry it over to the regular season. Although the Pens start the season without Sidney Crosby, he is expected to return soon, and the Pens made it to the seventh game against Tampa Bay in the 2011 playoffs without Crosby and Malkin, so they are still ever so dangerous without their franchise player.
The Penguins defense is unchanged from a year ago as is their goaltending. The Pens are a Cup contender this season, but won't be at their best tonight.
As mentioned earlier, this game is expected to come down to who has more depth and secondary scoring up front. Despite Hodgson starting on the second line, the Canucks win in this category and should win this game. We predict a 4-2 victory for the defending Western Conference Champions.