NHL Center Ice: 13 Games to Watch During the Free Preview Period

Stephen Nelson@@Stephen__NelsonContributor IIOctober 12, 2011

NHL Center Ice: 13 Games to Watch During the Free Preview Period

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    Just a couple of weeks ago, people were pining for the start of the 2011-2012 NHL regular season. Now recently, I've seen people complain about how these regular season games don't really mean anything—"It's all about the playoffs."

    Playoffs? PLAYOFFS? Easy there, General Custer, let's step back and take a look at what we have in front of us: a bevy of great hockey games to watch. And for the next couple of weeks, until October 23 to be specific, you can watch any and every game with the NHL Center Ice free preview.

    Last week, fellow columnist Franklin Steele gave fans 16 games to watch this month. This week, I'll chime in with some suggestions of my own. 

    Because it's October—the month of Halloween—and since 13 is generally regarded as a "scary" number, let's go with 13 games you should check out on NHL Center Ice while you can...for free.

1. October 12: Canucks at Flyers

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    Going into last year, these two teams were widely regarded as the top rosters in their respective conferences. The Canucks proved prospectors right. Injuries and other issues proved 2010-2011 was not the Flyers' year.

    Vancouver couldn't haul in the ultimate prize and Philly overhauled its roster, but once again, the 'Nucks and Flyers are looked at as top-tier teams. 

    This meeting will be the first and last of the year. So it will be Luongo vs. Bryzgalov, Giroux vs. Sedin(s) and Pronger vs. Bieksa (that one doesn't quite add up).

2. October 13: Jets at Blackhawks

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    Thursday the 13th, Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd return to their old stomping grounds for the first time since Game 5 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.

    You may recall Big Buff had a pretty good game that night (two goals and two assists). Now it will be Winnipeg fans hoping he brings some of that UC (United Center) magic to help the Jets beat the Blackhawks.

    Hockey fans know the historical ties the Hawks and Jets have. In 1972, Bobby Hull left Chicago and the NHL to join the Jets and a $1 million signing bonus in the WHA. Fast forward almost 30 years and No. 9 returns to the Windy City...on the back and shoulders of Evander Kane (with the Golden Jet's blessing).

    Chicago will surely give a warm welcome to two former teammates that helped them win a Cup. What the Blackhawks won't do is give them two points. 

    That's why they play the games...

3. October 15: Kings at Flyers

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    Mike Richards will be back in Philly in black (or white since the Kings will be on the road). It will be an emotional and perhaps volatile return for the former Flyers' captain.

    Chris Pronger now dawns the "C" in the city of brotherly love. And Richards recently made some interesting comments regarding their relationship and Pronger's rumored involvement in his leaving Philadelphia.

    Richards won't be the only one giving greetings to former 'mates. Wayne Simmonds will get to show off his new role in Philly and Simon Gagne will try to recapture the scoring touch he had as a Flyer—even if just for one night.

    On top of the many individual story lines, these two hockey clubs are both very good in all aspects and could meet again late next spring if things fall into place.

4. October 15: Jets at Coyotes

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    We've seen this before. A hockey team from Winnipeg migrating to Phoenix. The only difference is that this time it isn't permanent...and that a team may be leaving the Arizona desert.

    So the old Jets and current Coyotes are hosting the new Jets and former Thrashers. Got it?

    Phoenix has been a pretty solid hockey team over the past couple seasons but lost a huge part of their puzzle with Ilya Bryzgalov's departure to Philadelphia. Winnipeg brings a talented core with a lot of skill and a good mix of leadership.

    If for nothing else, watch this game for the sheer irony.

5. October 15: Bruins at Blackhawks

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    The Bruins won the Stanley Cup last year. The Blackhawks won it the year before that. Boston is deep and talented. So is Chicago. To make a short story even shorter: just watch the game. 

    Stan Bowman made several nice additions to the Hawks this offseason and brought depth back to the organization. Playing the defending champions at home, a place where Chicago was very average last year, will be a good early season test.

    The Bruins, on the other hand, didn't have to do much work in the offseason besides rest. They will also like to show they can win it all again and beating the Blackhawks, a trendy Stanley Cup pick, would make quite the early statement.

6. October 15: Rangers at Islanders

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    The Rangers made the biggest piggy bank splash of the offseason with the Brad Richards signing. The Islanders continued to build on a solid foundation for the future. 

    The team from NYC hasn't been able to take that "next step" in the postseason in recent years. They're hoping Richy-Rich can bring the offensive boost to help out Henrik Lundqvist in net. The team on the Isle is also intriguing, but for different reasons. They have been able to accumulate young talent, mostly due to the high volume of high draft picks in recent years. But they've also been able to keep and develop that young talent.

    The gap in New York is closing. No, shop-a-holic hockey fans, not the GAP on 5th Avenue.

7. October 17: Ducks at Sharks

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    There are two places where a fight between Ducks and Sharks can be interesting. One is the Discovery Channel during "Shark Week" and the other is in the NHL. 

    The Ducks sport, in my opinion, the best line in hockey with Bobby Ryan and reigning MVP Corey Perry centered by Ryan Getzlaf. The Sharks boast a lineup with arguably the most firepower in the league. Both starting netminders, when healthy, are among the best in the game.

    Anaheim and San Jose play each other a lot, so this won't be the only opportunity to watch these two teams quack and bite at each other. In fact, they play three days before this on Friday the 14th. But with all due respect to Honda Center, I think the Shark Tank makes for a more exciting atmosphere.

8. October 18: Rangers at Canucks

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    Canada's hope against America's hopefuls.

    New York has one of the highest numbers of American-born players on its roster. And Vancouver is the place where Canada beat the U.S. for Olympic Gold...and they have Ryan Kesler. So as you can see, the Canucks and Rangers is a battle of nations. 

    Richards, Gaborik, Callahan and Dubinsky against Daniel, Henrik, Kesler and Burrows. The rest of each roster will play too, I'm just naming a few.

    For what it's worth, the 'Nucks do play the Capitals on the 29th, but that is after the Center Ice free preview period and thus does not qualify.

9. October 18: Oilers at Flames

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    The Flames and Oilers look like two franchises headed in opposite directions. Edmonton is rebuilding rapidly, while Calgary seem to be in a middle-ground. 

    It may be a little hard to believe based on results in recent years, but these two teams once ruled the hockey landscape. So despite their teams' records over the past several years, Jarome Iginla and Taylor Hall sharing the same ice make this Battle for Alberta exciting.

10. October 20: Capitals at Flyers

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    Alex Ovechkin is still great, Mike Green is still good and Bruce Boudreau still can curse with the best of them. Same old Caps in 2011-2012? Not so fast. Offseason moves by GM George McPhee have strengthened Ovi's supporting cast and Washington is primed for a Cup run. Troy Brouwer brings his Stanley Cup experience and ability to hit to the roster along with bargain goaltender Tomas Vokoun. 

    The Flyers waved goodbye to Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, but added another Broad Street body with Wayne Simmonds and surprised with the signing of Jaromir Jagr.

    Expect to see a good number of Czechs and Russians on both benches to go along with plenty of checks and goals on the ice.

11. October 20: Sabres at Panthers

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    The Panthers?! Sabres?! Yes, watch the Panthers and Sabres.

    Buffalo and Florida were the two most active teams this past offseason. Terry Pegula signed off on big money deals for Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff. Dale Tallon was, well, Dale Tallon—bringing in just about every free agent on the market to hit the NHL cap floor. 

    All kidding aside, Tallon's moves greatly improve the Cats. He brought in familiar faces Brian Campbell Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky to go along with several other free agent pieces.

    Lindy Ruff's cupboards are full with a healthy Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford, plus youngsters like Tyler Ennis and rookie Luke Adam.

12. October 22: Leafs at Canadiens

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    The Leafs are currently trying to turn early season skeptics into believers. Montreal is trying to return to the Eastern Conference Finals level they attained two years ago.

    Optimus Reim shut out the DeceptiCanadiens 2-0 on opening night in Toronto, so Carey Price and the Habs will bring their best shot at home. 

    You may not like the Transformers references, but there's no way you can dislike an Original Six matchup. 

    (Cliff note: the Habs and Bruins face off on October 27, just FYI.)

13. October 22: Devils at Penguins

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    Will Zach Parise and Sidney Crosby both be healthy by the time October 22 rolls around? Things don't look promising on that front, but the Devils and Penguins will give you plenty of entertainment should you decide to tune in. 

    New Jersey's new captain Zach, Marty Brodeur and Ilya Kovalchuk will carry a chip on their shoulder in 2011-12 after all the disappointment last year. On the flip side, whenever you think Pittsburgh's roster looks thin, Dan Bylsma's Patchwork Penguins find a way to beat you.

    Crosby doesn't seem close and Evgeni Malkin's knee is acting up, but Jordan Staal and Kris Letang will lead the charge as two of the East's biggest teams go head to head.

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