After long lockout, NHL teams are set to face offAfter dragging its fans through another draining labor dispute, the National Hockey League returns Saturday promising supporters more bang for their buck and a playoff chase sure to have hockey hearts pumping.
Having settled a 113-day lockout in time to run a shortened season, Commissioner Gary Bettman, the players and teams offered apologies to fans along with discounted tickets, merchandise, free parking and open practices.
But according to Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, while free hot dogs are nice, having a winning team is more important.
That is particularly true this season as the NHL’s 30 clubs scramble to make up for the revenue shortfall during the lockout by making the playoffs and securing additional home games.
What is normally a grueling seven-month 82-game marathon will instead be a condensed, thrill-a-minute 48-game sprint to the postseason where a minor slump or injury could cost a team a shot at the Stanley Cup.
“It is going to be excitingly bizarre,” said St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are widely considered the favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup when the playoffs finally reach a climax in late June.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who missed most of the last two seasons with concussion-like symptoms, is fit and ready to lead a powerhouse lineup that features reigning NHL most valuable player and scoring champion Evgeni Malkin.
As Crosby, the face of the NHL, spent the lockout at home while appearing regularly at labor talks, Malkin was playing in his native Russia and arrives at training camp in top shape having been among the Kontinental Hockey League’s top scorers.
In one of the off-season’s biggest moves, the New York Rangers landed former goal-scoring champion Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets, adding more firepower to a lineup that includes 40-goal scorer Marian Gaborik.
The season opens tomorrow with 26 teams in action, including the reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who will unveil their championship banner before opening the defense of their crown against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Kings will start the season without top center Anze Kopitar, who injured his knee while playing in Switzerland, and hope netminder Jonathan Quick, voted most valuable player of last year’s playoffs, is back in top form. Reuters