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The NHL Returns: What Can We Expect?

Ann Frazier |
January 19, 2013 | 11:09 a.m. PST

Staff Writer

Saturday marks the long-awaited beginning of a shortened NHL season (sjsharktank/Creative Commons).
Saturday marks the long-awaited beginning of a shortened NHL season (sjsharktank/Creative Commons).
After a three-month delay, the National Hockey League is finally ready to kick off the 2013 season, the 95th season in the league’s existence. Opening weekend will feature all 30 teams playing, including eight teams playing back-to-backs.

Two games on opening day were tabbed as marquee match-ups by NBC, one for each conference (there is no inter-conference play as a result of the shortened season). From the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Flyers will host the Pittsburgh Penguins in the heated Keystone State rivalry and rematch of last year’s quarterfinals in which Philadelphia won 4-2. The Western Conference will feature defending the Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings hosting the previous Western Conference Stanley Cup winners, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Predictions for this season’s playoff teams are a little trickier than usual. With a 48-game season, teams are much more vulnerable to prolonged cold streaks. A team that loses five games in a row could be on the outside looking in regardless of how good they were the rest of the year; an even longer losing streak could have the front office seriously scouting Seth Jones or Nathan Mackinnon, the two top players for this summer’s draft.

Conversely, the shortened season could also mean that an otherwise mediocre-to-bad team could briefly go on a hot streak and make the playoffs because of that. After roughly 48 games last season, the Minnesota Wild were comfortably in the playoffs, the Phoenix Coyotes were out of the hunt, and the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the playoffs quite comfortably. After 82 games, however, the Wild and the Maple Leafs were out, and the Coyotes won the Pacific Division.

There are some results that are pretty obvious to predict, however. The Columbus Blue Jackets will not make the playoffs. The New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Los Angeles Kings will. Other than that, everything else is up in the air; many teams have somewhat significant holes in their lineups that will be glaring in the short season.

The long layoff will also pose as a blessing and a curse. It will be a blessing to the Kings, who will not have to deal with the traditional Stanley Cup hangover for the first couple of months of the season. It will also help the players who needed time to heal after playing last season banged up or needing offseason surgery (this apparently does not apply to San Jose Shark Brent Burns, who is still healing from injuries sustained the middle of last season).

The curse applies to the players who did not go to Europe, the AHL, or ECHL to play - they are going to be quite rusty. In the abbreviated training camp held this past week, the Boston Bruins played their minor league counterpart Providence Bruins and lost 7-5, with it being obviously apparent which team hadn’t played since May 2012.

There are a few burning questions that will finally be answered. How will the Red Wings play now that they’ve lost half of their top four defensemen, including one of the best all-time in Nicklas Lidstrom? Will the Oilers finally make the playoffs after picking first overall three times in a row? Will the Rangers' trade for Rick Nash pay off and get them over the hump? Will the free agent signings of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise finally get the Wild back into the playoffs? Will the intra-conference schedule give an advantage to the more rested Eastern Conference teams in the Stanley Cup Finals?

As the NHL’s newly debuted tagline states, hockey is back. And it’s going to be great.

Reach Staff Writer Ann Frazier via email or follow her on Twitter.



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