Hockey has become a foreign six-letter word to many because of the long, unnecessary lockout the NHL had been under for the previous 113 days.
Finally, it is getting a chance to grow back as a part of our lives again with the kickoff of the regular season on Saturday, Jan. 19.
If you were like me, you tuned into the Los Angeles Kings-Chicago Blackhawks game on NBC Saturday to watch the Kings raise their long awaited banner that was supposed to take place on Oct. 11, the original date of the start of the season.
Of course, the Kings milked it for as long as they could by having every player carry the Stanley Cup around the rink one more time before getting on with the rest of the pregame activities. After almost four months of waiting, what’s 30 more minutes to sit around through before the puck gets to drop, I guess.
Thankfully, when action did get underway, the rust that would have been accepted did not seem to be present for a lot of the 26 teams that began play. Goals came in bunches, some goalies made some miraculous saves, namely Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers on Saturday against the Boston Bruins, and the Columbus Blue Jackets actually won a game.
With the season schedule reduced to 48 games, it could be expected that anything could happen, but who knew something crazy like a Blue Jackets win would already be occurring? Kidding Columbus fans, if there is one out there.
The shortened 48-game schedule the league created will not be giving the top teams in both conferences as much room to catch up this season should they get off to slow starts, but things still should work themselves out over time as far as who will make the playoffs.
In the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks still have to be seen as the top team in the league from the power it has in its top lines with Ryan Kesler and twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Roberto Luongo in net isn’t a bad thing, and he’ll be fine despite whatever trade rumors he was mentioned in.
Their top challenger might be the newly formed Minnesota Wild club that made a few big free agent acquisitions over the summer. In grabbing Zach Parise away from the New Jersey Devils, the Wild have a playmaker again, such as when Marian Gaborik was their star before leaving for the Rangers. The other big signing was defenseman Ryan Suter, who may be the top player at his spot in the league. In the new tradition of ridiculous NHL contracts, he signed a 13-year, $98 million deal to leave the Nashville Predators. Still, they’ll go as far as aging goaltender Niklas Backstrom takes them at 34 years of age.
In the Eastern Conference, the Rangers may have turned themselves in the most skilled team by trading for forward Rick Nash from the Blue Jackets. He joins Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin on one line, with Chris Kreider, Gaborik and Ryan Callahan on another. They lose Artem Anisimov in the Nash deal, but with Lundqvist in net, they have to be the favorites in the East.
Not too far behind them are Pittsburgh Penguins because of the two obvious reasons: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Any team would become a top-10 squad with those two, but in the Penguins high-pressure attack they make any team stay on its heels. Somehow, Marc-André Fleury is able to take them far in net every season, so this will be when I finally stop doubting him.
In the end, I’ll take the Canucks to win another President’s Trophy with the most points earned in the regular season, but the Wild to come out of the West. They’ll oppose the Bruins who come up big in two great playoff series against the Rangers and Penguins, and will then win its second Cup in three seasons.
Why? Because anything can happen in this shortened season.
Sure, the Winter Classic was canceled and Columbus missed out on a much needed All-Star Game coming to town. Things were not going to be merry until the lockout ended. It’s over though, and hockey can come back into our vocabularies again.