By Allan Muir
Yeah, I heard you last September. “Wake me up when the lockout’s over,” you said.
No one’s blaming you for nodding off while the finger-pointing, name calling, line-in-the-sand-drawing lawyers cost us nearly four months of NHL hockey. In fact, I got a little blurry myself listening to all that talk about cap escalators and salary variance and rose ceremonies, but here I am with that call you’ve been waiting for. Time to rub the sleep out of your eyes, pull the team sweater out of mothballs, settle into that lucky couch groove and pop the top on your favorite frosty beverage. (And while you’re waiting for the first puck ro drop, some suggested reading..)
The abbreviated 2013 NHL season finally begins Saturday afternoon. And it’s gonna be a good one. (Kings raise banner in style.)
Make that really good. The 48-games-in-99-days, intra-conference schedule isn’t just “better than nothing.” This impossibly compressed timeline actually magnifies the importance of every moment, every slump, every streak, every injury. With so much on the line and no margin for error, it even makes an Islanders game worth watching. On a Tuesday. In February.
Well … maybe.
We can make that call another day. In the meantime, the short-track race to the playoffs begins now. Here’s what to look for when the puck drops this weekend. (SI.com’s NHL crystal ball)
• Intensity: Forget the apparent foot-dragging during the labor negotiations. If anyone was itching to see the end of the lockout more than the fans, it was the players. For most of them, the last few months meant extra chores around the house, spirit-crushing hours in the gym and avoiding contact in half-speed pickup games with their buddies. To a man, they’re ready to get their noses dirty and take out their frustrations on anyone wearing a different color sweater. It won’t be playoff level nastiness, but it’ll be close.
• The return of Sidney Crosby: Concussions limited him to just 22 games over the past 24 months, but Sid was special in nearly every one of them, scoring 37 points and adding clips to his personal highlight reel. Symptom-free and motivated to reassert both the Penguins and himself as the best in the world, look for him to be quick out of the gate in a couple of tough divisional matchups. Speaking of which …
• The best rivalry in hockey: Nothing like pure, unbridled Chevy Chase/Dan Harmon-style animosity to spice up a game and right now there are no two teams in hockey — maybe in all of sport — that despise each other quite like the Pens and Flyers. Philly humiliated Pittsburgh in their first-round battle last spring and the lockout forced the Pens to nurse their tanned hides a little longer than they would have liked. Saturday’s tilt at Philadelphia’s rowdy Wells Fargo Center (3 p.m. EST, NBC) should be a bloody, high-scoring beauty.
• The Kings get their rings: Did the champs use those extra four months to extend, or recover from, their Stanley Cup hangover? L.A.’s lineup is virtually identical to the one that skated the mug last spring, so there’s a familiarity that should compensate for the short camp, as should the presence of Jonathan Quick, the Conn Smythe-winner and a player many thought deserved the Vezina as well. Still, a long pre-game ceremony (3 p.m. EST on NBC) featuring the banner raising and ring presentation means a lot of standing around and heavy legs early. Will the adrenalin kick in or will they struggle as the Bruins and Blackhawks did in the openers of their recent title defenses?
• The future is now: Some people thought that the abbreviated camps would limit opportunities for young players to make an impression and earn a roster spot. There were some surprising cuts – Ryan Strome on Long Island, Morgan Rielly in Toronto — but several made the grade, including Rickard Rakell (Anaheim), Dougie Hamilton (Boston), Mikhail Grigorenko (Buffalo), Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz (Edmonton), Mathew Dumba and Mikael Granlund (Minnesota), Alexander Galchenyuk (Montreal) and Scott Laughton (Philadelphia). All are worth watching, but catch ‘em quick. Junior-eligible players will be allowed to play just five games (as opposed to the normal nine) before burning a year of their contracts, so the stay for some of these kids is likely to be short.
• The new-look Wild: Other teams swapped more nameplates in the dressing room, but no team made more significant changes in the off-season than the Wild. Granlund and Zach Parise are significant upgrades to an an offense that mustered a league-low 2.02 goals-per-game last season, while Ryan Suter gives them a true No. 1 presence to stabilize the back end. Chemistry and adjusting to a new system could be an issue — Suter in particular struggled in camp, especially in transition — but the Wild finally have a roster that can create a buzz outside of Minnesota. They play back-t0-back this weekend, hosting the Avs and the Stars.
• Panic in Detroit?: The retirement of Nick Lidstrom has made it fashionable to pick the Red Wings as the team least likely to succeed in the West. Not so fast. They’re no longer a serious Cup threat, but the addition of Damien Brunner (with Gustav Nyquist waiting in the wings if he stumbles) gives Detroit fresh legs up front, and Jonas Gustafsson could be the comeback player of the year. Ultimately though, this team will live or die on a no-star blueline led by Niklas Kronwall, with growing room for promising rookie Brendan Smith. The group will face a serious test in Saturday’s opener against a fast, aggressive St. Louis team that many pick to win the West. (HACKEL: Key questions for Western teams | Eastern)
If all that doesn’t get you ready for some hockey, this should do the trick.