Cherrypicking the must-see games on the 2008-09 schedule
After fighting through a series of last-minute decisions (the Dallas Stars vs. the Dallas Cowboys? Wrigley or U.S. Cellular?), the NHL finally released its 2008-09 schedule on Thursday, officially starting the countdown to Opening Night on Oct. 4.
For the record, that's 79 days until four teams -- the Rangers, Senators, Lightning and Penguins -- hook up overseas, and 84 days until the North American slate gets underway with four games on Oct. 9.
The newly redesigned matrix features a diminished emphasis on divisional play (six games, down from eight) and at least one game against every team from the other conference. It also features a home-and-home series for each of the six Canadian teams, a welcome occurrence that's been absent since the lockout.
The regular season ends on April 12, a week later than the 2007-08 season wrapped up. Ostensibly, the extra week affords a little more breathing room during the campaign to lessen the strain of the increased travel necessitated by the inter-conference play. But there may be another reason as well: the Stanley Cup Final is now likely to coincide with the NBA Finals, a more palatable option for the NHL's TV partners who prefer that to going up against two semi-final series of the hoops circuit.
But before we get to that point, there are more than 1,200 games to be played. Although it won't be for lack of trying, we can't watch 'em all. So here's a look at some of the dates we've circled on our calendar after giving the schedule the once-over:
Oct 4: Pittsburgh vs. Ottawa in Stockholm; New York Rangers vs. Tampa Bay in Prague
Last season's opening series between the Ducks and Kings in London wasn't as jolly good as the league had hoped, but forcing hockey on the English was a classic square peg/round hole situation. The Swedes and Czechs should be much more welcoming hosts, even if Jaromir Jagr's decision to bolt to Russia takes some of the lustre off the Prague game. Of course, fans will still have the thrill of watching Filip Kuba and Petr Prucha and, likely, the NHL debut of top pick Steve Stamkos.
Oct. 9: Toronto at Detroit -- The Red Wings raise the banner to celebrate last season's Stanley Cup and begin their title defense against the NHL's version of the tomato can. Always nice to get that first win under the belt.
Oct. 20: Pittsburgh at Boston -- The evening should mark the return of Patrice Bergeron to Boston 51 weeks after he suffered a career-threatening concussion. Not that anyone in town will notice, what with the Patriots playing on Monday Night Football.
That same night, the Rangers host the Dallas Stars. You don't suppose Sean Avery will be a factor in that one, do you?
Oct. 25: Here's the day your investment in the Center Ice package and picture-in-picture TVs pay off. All 30 teams are in action for the first time in the post-lockout era. Best bets? Start your night at 7 p.m. Eastern time with Penguins vs. Rangers. Flip over to Capitals vs. Stars at 8, then Sabres vs. Avalanche at 9 before capping off the evening with Flames vs. Coyotes at 10.
Nov. 9: Montreal at Toronto -- Even when one team is riding high and the other is swirling the drain, the NHL's oldest rivalry remains its most compelling. This skirmish has the added appeal of being the annual Hall of Fame game, honoring Igor Larionov, Glenn Anderson and the rest of the class of 2009 that will be inducted on Nov. 11.
Dec. 8: Toronto at NY Islanders -- Round One of the John Tavares Sweepstakes.
Jan. 1: Detroit at Chicago -- It'll be almost impossible to top last year's picture-perfect Winter Classic, but the ingredients are in place to give it a go. Two Original Six teams, a legendary venue (Wrigley Field, home of baseball's Chicago Cubs), the defending champs and a pair of the game's brightest young stars in Patrick Kane and Johnny Toews account for all of the key ingredients, save one: the weather. Here's hoping for the best.
Jan. 12: Tampa Bay at Los Angeles -- Barry Melrose returns to Hollywood. Alan Thicke and Dave Coulier will be spotted repeatedly during the broadcast after scoring comp tickets. Plus, a possible matchup of the first and second overall picks in the recent draft, Stamkos and Drew Doughty.
Jan. 25: All-Star Game in Montreal -- If the Habs don't win the Cup, this game could be the highlight of their centennial celebrations. No team has done a better job of maintaining links to its glorious past, so expect them to put on an impressive show.
Feb. 8: Detroit at Pittsburgh -- This will be the second meeting of the year for last season's Cup finalists, but it marks the first time that Marian Hossa returns to Pittsburgh. We're not anticipating a warm welcome.
Feb. 21: Ottawa at Montreal; Vancouver at Toronto; Calgary at Edmonton -- Hockey Day In Canada returns in its most perfect form: an all-day triple-header featuring the six Canadian teams in battle.
Feb. 25: San Jose at Detroit -- The Sharks have revamped their blueline, but are they ready to compete against the big boys? This late-season meeting should be a good test.
Mar. 6: Pittsburgh at Washington -- Assuming good health, this could be the final meeting of the season between the league's top three scorers, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up against Alexander Ovechkin and the Art Ross Trophy up for grabs.
Apr. 11: Pittsburgh at Montreal -- A preview of the Eastern Conference Finals? Could be.
Apr. 12: Blues at Avalanche -- It says here this final game of the season will decide the battle for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.