After a year with limited hockey to watch, fans can now prepare themselves for 1,230 regular season NHL games in addition to 38 games at the Olympics.
The NHL enters its new ice age with a changed scheduling format, one that emphasizes rivalry play. At the same time however, some inter-conference matchups have been left off the schedule.
Here are five matchups worth watching, and five others that will have to wait.
at New Jersey Devils
Perhaps it is fitting that on the same day that Mario Lemieux turns 40, Sidney Crosby will make his NHL debut.
Crosby joins Mark Recchi, John LeClair, and Ziggy Palffy as newcomers to the Penguins offense. Jocelyn Thibault in goal and Sergei Gonchar along the blue line are also first-time Penguins.
Even with an upgraded roster, it will not be easy for the Pens in their season opener. The Devils have traditionally been one of the NHL’s best defensive teams, although with new rules in place to open up the game, New Jersey may be looking for alternative ways to win.
All-stars Scott Niedermayer (Anaheim) and Scott Stevens (retired) are not back for the Devils, but Martin Brodeur is, and the game’s best goalie should be a good test for its newest phenom.
at Colorado Avalanche
October 27 & 29
Some rivalries are natural for geographic reasons. Others are established from a history of playoff meetings. And some rivalries are built for all the wrong reasons. Case in point: The Canucks and Avalanche, whose matchups this season will surely focus on Canucks power forward Todd Bertuzzi.
Bertuzzi last played in March 2004, when he sucker-punched Colorado centre Steve Moore, breaking Moore’s neck in the process.
Bertuzzi and the Canucks visit Denver for four games this season, including back-to-back encounters on October 27 and 29.
The Canucks and Avalanche meet three times over an eight-day span between October 22-29, with the first meeting in Vancouver and the latter two in the Mile High City.
In the season’s opening two months the teams will meet six times, highlighted by Bertuzzi’s first visit to Denver and the back-to-back scenario offered during the final week of October. Expect boos.
at Philadelphia Flyers
When the Flyers chose 18-year-old Peter Forsberg in the 1991 entry draft, they understood it would take a few years for Forsberg to crack their roster.
What they probably did not expect was a 14-year wait. Granted the Flyers traded Forsberg to the Quebec Nordiques in 1992 as part of the deal that brought Eric Lindros to Philadelphia, but thanks to free agency Forsberg will finally play for the City of Brotherly Love in 2005-06.
Under the NHL’s new salary cap Avalanche General Manager Pierre Lacroix could not afford to resign Forsberg last summer. The Swedish centre has the opportunity to remind his old team just what they’re missing when they meet for the only time this year on January 14.
The game also represents a meeting between two of hockey’s most successful franchises of the past decade, with 14 division titles between them since 1995. Not bad for NBC’s opening weekend of national telecasts south of the border.
While Forsberg looks forward to playing against his former team, the Flyers will just be happy to be in Philadelphia. The Flyers host the Avalanche after an 11-game road trip, the longest in the NHL this season.
vs. Czech Republic
With the Russians and Americans both in Group B, and the Canadians in Group A, team Canada’s top rival during the round robin portion of the Olympics is the Czech Republic.
Dominik Hasek and the Czechs eliminated the Canadians in the semi-finals of the 1998 Olympics, leading to a complete overhaul of Hockey Canada.
Since then, Canada has an Olympic Gold, a World Cup, and two World Championships. Finishing atop the Group A standings could go a long way towards giving Canada another Gold, and a win against the Czech Republic in the round robin finale could prove to be the difference.
The potential matchup between Hasek and Martin Brodeur is difficult to ignore.
Toronto Maple Leafs
at Montreal Canadiens
In addition to increased divisional play with the NHL’s new scheduling format, back-to-back games between the same two teams in the same arena will be added to the regular season to give the games the feel of a playoff series.
The Canadiens and Maple Leafs have such a series at the Bell Centre during the final weekend of March.
With a possible eight-point swing in the standings up for grabs during this series, the games should serve as a good indicator for an aging Maple Leafs team of whether or not they are playoff tough. Ditto for a young Canadiens team that has not made the post-season in consecutive years since 1997-98.
Five We’ll Miss:
vs. Detroit Red Wings
Original Six members used to meet as many as 14 times during the regular season.
Barring a Stanley Cup series, these teams won’t meet at all in 2005-06.
Tampa Bay Lightning
vs. Calgary Flames
They gave us seven classic games during the 2004 Stanley Cup final, but don’t plan that rematch party just yet.
at Montreal Canadiens
Keep those fleur-de-lis jerseys tucked away for at least one more year.
While the Avalanche and Canadiens meet once in Denver this season (January 11), for the first time since 1979 the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise will not be visiting Montreal.
Those wanting to give Patrice Brisebois a warm reception upon his return to the Bell Centre will have to wait.
vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Wayne Gretzky has played with and against Mario Lemieux. If The Great One ever plans on coaching against Lemieux, they will both have to stick around beyond this season.
The storyline of Gretzky coaching against the heir apparent Sidney Crosby will also be put on hold.
vs. Minnesota Wild
Actually, maybe some games are best left off the schedule after all.