Hockey fans are a happy bunch this week. After more than three months of waiting, we’re just days away from the return of games that count. The NHL’s opening night is almost here.
Well, make that opening nights, since the NHL basically stretches its debut into a two-part production. The season opens with four games on Wednesday night, followed by 12 more on Thursday. By the end of that second night of action, 28 out of the league’s 30 teams will have played at least once.
And, of course, we’ll overanalyze all of it. One or two games out of an 82-game schedule is such a ridiculously small sample that we won’t able to draw any conclusions, but that doesn’t mean we won’t try. By Friday, we’ll be convinced we have most of these teams all figured out.
To help us get there, here are 14 story lines to overreact to as the 2014 season gets under way.
1. The Kings twist the knife.
For the second time in franchise history, the Los Angeles Kings will raise a Stanley Cup banner on Wednesday night. The game will mark the first meaningful hockey played at the Staples Center since the June night that ended with Alec Martinez’s championship-winning overtime goal, and the atmosphere should be electric.
And, in a delightful bit of league-sanctioned trolling, the Kings’ opponent will be the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks, of course, had the Kings down three games in their opening-round series last year, before collapsing and losing four straight. That loss sent San Jose into a franchisewide state of existential crisis, and the team still doesn’t seem to know which direction it’s headed this year.
This feels like the sort of game the Sharks will end up winning, marking the first step on a road to redemption that eventually returns them to the ranks of the league’s elite. But unless you’re a San Jose fan, a Kings win — especially one involving a big comeback — would probably be more fun.
2. Taking the Flames’ temperature
Calgary isn’t expected to be good this year; the team is young, it’s rebuilding, and nobody thinks it will challenge for a playoff spot.
But just how bad will the Flames be? More specifically, will they be bad enough to contend for the top pick in this year’s draft? Most seem to think they will, but then again, we thought that last year, and Calgary outperformed expectations just enough to finish well clear of the Sabres, Panthers, and Oilers. And the team has a decent goalie now, having signed Jonas Hiller as a free agent. While they almost certainly won’t make the playoffs, there’s at least a chance that this year’s Flames could be good enough to play themselves out of McDavid/Eichel territory.
We’ll get our first chance to see how they stack up against their fellow also-rans this week, as the Flames open with a pair of games against non-playoff teams. They host the Canucks on Wednesday, and then head to Edmonton to face the Oilers on Thursday.
3. Ryan Johansen and the Blue Jackets look for a quick start.
Until yesterday, Columbus was headed into the season in a tough spot. Forecast as a borderline wild-card team, the Blue Jackets looked like they’d go into the season missing their entire top line due to Nathan Horton’s bad back, Boone Jenner’s broken hand, and Ryan Johansen’s ongoing contract dispute.
Horton and Jenner are still out, but Johansen signed a three-year deal on Monday and should be in the lineup for the Blue Jackets’ opener. That’s good news for a team that will need every point it can get. More good news: The Jackets get to open on the road on Thursday with what should be an easy matchup against the lowly Sabres, followed by a three-game homestand. That all adds up to a chance for a decent start, for a team that looked like it was in trouble just a few days ago.
4. St. Louis is the center of attention.
Thursday’s game between the Rangers and Blues will give St. Louis fans their first chance to cheer on Paul Stastny in regular-season action. The former Avs center joined the Blues in July, signing a four-year, $28 million contract that carried the highest annual value of any free-agency deal. That’s a big investment, and Stastny will be under pressure to start paying dividends right away.
The game could feature another new-look center, although this one will have “St. Louis” on the back of his jersey instead of the front. The Rangers are toying with the idea of shifting Martin St. Louis to center while Derek Stepan is out with a broken fibula. The 39-year-old St. Louis has spent nearly his entire career on the wing, but certainly has the skill to adapt if called on. If he can make the move successfully, it would fill the one major hole in the Rangers’ early-season lineup.