Thursday, October 1, 2009

Welcome to opening night!

I posted this at The Program hockey blog, so I will add it to my own right here. Basically, I was asked to rate each game based on their matchups.

Were you bored stiff from watching Stanley Cup playoff game re-runs on NHL Network? Maybe relied too much on some archived games in your personal collection to keep your hockey fix going during those long summer days?

Have no fear because that long anticipated day has arrived. The start of the 2009-2010 National Hockey League season is finally here! With four games slated to begin the autumn month of October, there are some good matchups to get your hockey season off to a good start in your viewing pleasure. I will rate each game on a scale of 1 to 5 beer mugs. The more beer, the better the matchup. A pretty straight forward concept to remember, right?


With a season filled with promise a year ago, the Southeast Division champion Washington Capitals were unable to get past the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring. Now they have a loftier goal in mind. That would be to get to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals and if it means dethroning the defending champions, so be it. With their superstar sniper Alexander Ovechkin, he will have to once again put up MVP numbers and more importantly have a supporting cast to make that happen. For example, without Semyon Varlamov picking up where he left off after Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals, free agent acquisitions Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison contributing regularly on the offensive side of the ice or Brooks Laich being an important center who netted back-to-back 20-goal seasons, it would be really tough to achieve that goal.

The Boston Bruins finished first in the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference last season with 116 points and were expected to go deep into the playoffs. But they failed to advance past the second round. Scott Walker ended any hope the Bruins could see their first Stanley Cup title since 1972. His overtime winning goal lifted the Carolina Hurricanes to an unlikely Game 7 victory in Boston. Another team in search of redemption. There will be no Phil Kessel in their lineup, but the Bruins will still have Marc Savard to make a serious contribution as one of their top forwards. And don't forget that Tim Thomas will be expected to have another solid season between the pipes.

Washington won 3 of the 4 meetings last season with Jose Theodore recording two of those Capitals victories. Savard and Alexander Semin each had 5 points in the season series for their respective teams.

Game matchup BEER RATING: 3½ mugs out of 5


For two teams that failed to make a serious impact on last season, each have something to prove the skeptics wrong about their expectations for the new campaign. The Montréal Canadiens slipped into the playoffs as the #8 seed in the East only to get crushed by the Bruins in the first round. Bob Gainey as general manager had made some major changes to the team roster over the summer by trading Christopher Higgins to the New York Rangers for Scott Gomez as well as some minor leaguers switching allegiances. The Canadiens also added Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri up front in free agent signings while also bringing in Hal Gill and Paul Mara to add size for their blueline. Plenty of high expectations as usual in Montréal.

Adding intrigue to this opening night matchup is defenseman Mike Komisarek trading in the blanc, bleu and rouge for the simple color scheme of the blue and white of the Toronto Maple Leafs. While the offseason free agent signings haven't knocked Leafs fans' socks off, it is still a period for the Leafs in which general manager Brian Burke is simply trying to improve the makeup of their roster. No sniff at the playoffs last season and this hockey hotbed certainly demands a lot more than what they got in the 2008-2009 season. Kessel will be a major contributor on the club, but will he have teammates that can regularly put the puck in the net? Will Toronto be a lot better on special teams than they were a year ago where they were absolutely dreadful?

These two Original Six teams split six meetings last season with each winning 2 out of 3 on the road. Jaroslav Halak won all three of Montréal's victories while Vesa Toskala had one win each home and away. Toronto won't have to worry about Alexei Kovalev being a Leaf killer as he burned them for 9 points in the 6 games. He signed with the Ottawa Senators as a free agent. Alexei Ponikarovsky finish with 7 points against Montréal in the season series.

Had these two teams had been better overall, I just might have given them another beer mug. If you live in either Montréal or Toronto, you'd likely disagree with me anyway. It's always a compelling matchup when you're in Canada and love your hockey.

Game matchup BEER RATING: 2 mugs out of 5

SAN JOSE AT COLORADO, 10:00 PM Eastern Time

For the San Jose Sharks, they have been a team during the last 4 years that achieved great regular season success only to end up with major playoff disappointment. Last season was no exception to that. After finishing with a franchise record and league-best 53 wins and 117 points during the 2008-2009 campaign, the Sharks fell flat on their collective face and lost to their Pacific Division rival Anaheim Ducks in six playoff games. Only defenseman Dan Boyle and former captain Patrick Marleau managed to score more than a single goal in that series.

Tonight, San Jose will face a Colorado Avalanche team that was on the opposite end of the regular season standings from a year ago. The Avalanche finished with an NHL-low 190 goals and earned just 69 points, undisputedly their worst season since moving from Quebec City to Denver in 1995. But they will have their newest sniper in the lineup this evening as forward Dany Heatley will make his Sharks debut. San Jose acquired Heatley during this summer from the Senators for forwards Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek plus a 2010 second round draft pick.

While this stands to possibly be a game heavily favored for the Sharks, this is a night which the Avalanche will be without their long-time captain Joe Sakic on the ice. Sakic retired over the summer after an outstanding career in which recorded 1,641 points with the franchise, good for 8th all-time in NHL history. During his 20 years as a player, Sakic won two Stanley Cup championships as well. Tonight, the team will retire his #19 jersey in a pregame ceremony. Will that be the only highlight of the night for Colorado fans? Or will the Avalanche pull out a surprising opening night victory at the Pepsi Center?

The Sharks won all four meetings against the Avalanche during the 2008-2009 season. Colorado getting a victory tonight will already improve on what they couldn't do back then.

Game matchup BEER RATING: 3 mugs out of 5


Right off the bat, we have two highly competitive teams that have fought for Northwest Division supremacy for at least the last two seasons. The Vancouver Canucks outlasted the Calgary Flames to claim the division crown in the final week by just a two-point margin last season. But each would fall to the Chicago Blackhawks in the postseason. Not exactly what was expected for these two clubs.

Vancouver fared well during the preseason with a 7-2 record in 9 games that actually don't even matter in the grand scheme of things. But it was a good tune-up for what counts for real in the standings. They knocked off Calgary twice in shootout fashion during the preseason, but does that really matter now? Only if the Canucks can rely on those two wins for their own confidence in such close games when Roberto Luongo is between the pipes.

Luongo's matchup against his netminding counterpart Miikka Kiprusoff is plenty enough for even the casual hockey fans to watch. If you tuned in to either The Sports Network (TSN) in Canada or the NHL Network in the United States back on Saturday night, you missed a goaltending duel in which Luongo prevailed in a five-round 2-1 shootout win. If it is anything like five nights ago, this could very well be the game of the night.

The Canucks did make some changes during the offseason as they brought in goaltender Andrew Raycroft to back up Luongo, Mikael Samuelsson and Sergei Shirokov as two new forwards plus Christian Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome on defense. Can they make an immediate impact? Will Kevin Bieksa have another strong year on the blueline after posting 43 points during the 2008-2009 campaign? How will the Sedin twins do after signing identical lucrative new contracts? The pressure will certainly be on them if Vancouver is to go to the Western Conference Finals and beyond in 2010.

As for the Flames, they will need their captain Jarome Iginla to play big this season. Against a team such as the Canucks, he will have to fight his way for more room on valuable ice, create scoring chances and when possible, score a goal or two. If he does tonight, Calgary stands a solid chance in winning their season opener. Their defense undoubtedly gets a boost with the pre-draft trade acquistion defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to help out the likes of Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich.

Vancouver won 4 of 6 meetings last season and it is not expected to be much different in terms of highly competitive close games through this campaign.

Game matchup BEER RATING: 4 mugs out of 5

It may be just four games and only eight of the thirty teams playing on this October 1st, but these matchups certainly will be worth your time and interest. That said, LET'S PLAY HOCKEY!