*Editor’s Note: I wasn’t planning on doing a recap of any of the games last night, but I must simply state: Auston Matthews is very, very good.*
Yesterday might have officially been opening day, but tonight marks the first game of most teams’ seasons – read nine games being played this evening. Three drop the puck at 7 p.m. (Montréal at Buffalo [RDS], the Islanders at the Rangers and Boston at Columbus), with two more getting started half an hour later (Detroit at Tampa Bay and New Jersey at Florida). Another trio gets green lit at the top of the hour (Minnesota at St. Louis, Carolina at Winnipeg and Washington at Pittsburgh [NBCSN/TVAS2]) and Anaheim at Dallas, this evening’s nightcap, cleans things up 30 minutes later. All times eastern.
- New York at New York: In addition to being the first Battle of New York of the year, the Rangers edged the Islanders by only a point last year. Even though the Islanders fared better in the playoffs, I expect the Isles to be unhappy by being barely beaten.
- Detroit at Tampa Bay: A divisional rivalry and a rematch of a Eastern Quarterfinal for the past two seasons. This might be far from the best rivalry in the Atlantic Division all-time, but it might be pretty high on this season’s list.
- New Jersey at Florida: In addition to being a good game, this is also the first official home game with the Panthers‘ new look.
- Washington at Pittsburgh: It’s a rivalry. It’s a rematch of one of last season’s Eastern Semifinals. It’s the Penguins‘ banner raising ceremony. Should make for an exciting atmosphere in the arena and an emotionally charged environment on the ice.
I said it last year, and I have to say it again. There’s only one banner raising ceremony a year, so we have to head to the the City of Champions.
After all the pomp-and-circumstance are done, a fantastic hockey game should commence. Washington, last season’s regular season champion comes in with probably the biggest chip on their shoulder possible, as this evening’s opponent forced them to settle for finding the bottom of 18 cups instead of hoisting the Cup.
That’s not the only thing they have going for them though. They bring back most of the incredible roster they had a season ago, led by future Hall-of-Famer Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams… you get the idea. Behind that firepower they have last year’s Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby. This squad is built to win now.
How many times have Capitals/Nationals fans heard that?
The Pens are also built to win now, but if you had picked them to win the Stanley Cup last December, many would have called you crazy. It took another coaching change and a hot run over the last month of the regular season to land them their fourth championship.
Like Washington, most of last season’s club will take to the ice tonight. Unfortunately, Sidney Crosby finds himself in street clothes due to sustaining a concussion at practice Friday – Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin will fill in leading the team during his absence. So does Matt Murray, the goaltending star from the playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury retains his starting job unopposed for at least another week.
Some players to keep an eye on tonight include Pittsburgh‘s Fleury (35 wins [fourth-most in the NHL a year ago], five shutouts [fifth-most in the league last year], 2.29 GAA [ninth-best in the NHL last season] and .921 save percentage [10th-best in the league last year]), Kunitz (+29 [fourth in the NHL a season ago]), Kris Letang (51 assists [sixth in the NHL last season]) and Olli Maatta (+27 [tied for sixth-best in the NHL last season]) & Washington‘s Nicklas Backstrom (50 assists [tied for seventh-most in the league last season]), Holtby (48 wins [led the league last season], 2.2 GAA [fifth-best in the league last year] and .922 save percentage [eighth-best in the NHL last season]), Kuznetsov (57 assists [fourth-most in the league a season ago], +27 [tied for sixth-best in the NHL last season] and 77 points [tied for ninth in NHL last season]) and Ovechkin (50 goals [led league last season])
Vegas marks Pittsburgh at a +105, so the Caps are barely favored in this one. The last two NHL banner raising ceremonies have ended in disappointment, so we’re getting close to a trend. That being said, Pittsburgh has never lost a celebratory game in their history, so they’ve got that going for them.
Last season, in addition to beating the Capitals in the playoffs in six games, Pittsburgh also took the regular season series 3-2-0. All of this adds up to quite the contest this evening. I pick the Pens to defend their newly-named ice and come away with an early-season statement win.