Thursday, 6 October 2011

Guess Who Is Back?

Yes, I made it back from a great birthday evening yesterday where hockey was talked about ad nauseum, meaning everyone who was there should be prepared for tonight. Why tonight, you ask? Unless you've simply lost track of time and haven't seen a calendar or the date in months, you'd know that hockey is back! The season kicks off tonight with two games on Hockey Night In Canada featuring three Canadian teams, and there's another tilt going on in Boston where the Bruins welcome the Flyers to watch them raise the Stanley Cup banner to the rafters!

The early game has the Montreal Canadiens visiting the Toronto Maple Leafs in an Original Six matchup to kick the season off right. Both Toronto and Montreal can boast solid, young goaltenders in James Reimer and Carey Price, respectively, and both have some key new additions to their teams.

Personally, I think this may be the season where Toronto challenges for a playoff spot legitimately. In recent years, they were basically mathematically-eliminated after the NHL Entry Draft, but I think they have something special in Reimer. His presence last year between the pipes in the second half of the season saw Toronto climb out of the cellar to a respectable finish, so his continued solid play should be counted on if the Leafs are to make the playoffs. If he falters, it could get ugly in The Big Smoke.

As for Montreal, I believe their biggest concern will be injuries once again this year. This team is smaller than most NHL teams with eight starting forwards standing in at 6'0" or less, and five defencemen measuring in at 6'0" or less. Smaller players will feel the grind more than big players will as they tend to be punished quite regularly by bigger players. Andrei Markov is on the shelf once again, so their defence has already taken a hit.

Carey Price will be counted on to turn in another stellar season this year. Peter Budaj is the back-up in Montreal, but he really didn't wow anyone during camp to push Price. Price was out to prove that he could make people forget about Jaroslav Halak's playoff run two years ago, and he certainly did with his excellent play. He'll need another big year to help Montreal stave off some of the challengers for their playoff spot if the Canadiens start occupying hospital rooms again.

The late game features the defending Western Conference Champion Vancouver Canucks welcoming the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins to the left coast. Will there be a Stanley Cup hangover in Vancouver? It's the first time that the vast majority of the Canucks have played that late into the year, and the short off-season may hurt them as the Canucks sat their veterans for the majority of the preseason. With many pundits picking Pittsburgh as the Eastern Conference Finalist, do they have the firepower and determination to survive with Crosby and take down the East?

I'm very interested in seeing how Malkin plays. He looked good in the preseason, but that's not exactly the best competition in the world during those exhibition games. Essentially, this is his team until Crosby returns. Even when Crosby is back, Malkin should continue to push himself to lead this team. He could be the Messier-type player that can compliment Crosby, only with less crying and boasting.

Another Penguin that I want to see do well is James Neal. Neal was a guy I always liked with Dallas, and his trade to the Penguins looked like the Steel Town Team could be an offensive juggernaut with the power forward on their side. His one goal in two dozen games last season gave me cause to worry, so here's hoping that the preseason games and training camp gave him some time to mesh with his teammates and linemates.

Does Bobby Lou have it in him to help the Canucks to another title shot? With his reported fragile ego, it's hard to imagine that Roberto Luongo is as successful as he is, yet he was one win away from being a Stanley Cup Champion a few short months ago, and he is the apparent heir to Martin Brodeur's hold on Team Canada's starting goaltender position. If Luongo and Cory Schneider can recreate their solid campaigns from last season when they won the William M. Jennings Trophy, the Western Conference should be theirs. But if Luongo is as shaky as he was in latter part of the series against Boston, this could be a long season for the Canucks' faithful.

Can the twins hold onto the Art Ross for a third season? Vancouver added depth and re-signed some players who could be more instrumental in helping Vancouver get back to the Stanley Cup Final. I like the Chris Higgins signing because he's gritty and definitely scores more often than Raffi Torres will. Higgins could be that fiesty winger that the Sedins need who will give as much punishment as the twins receive.

Overall, I'll have all three games going tonight in high-definition, and it feels good to say that hockey is back. I'm kicking it off with Montreal-Toronto as I write this, and the game looks like a good one already!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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