October 4 – Opening Day – Let’s get this show on the road

You know when you go to a Mexican restaurant and they bring you chips and salsa? That’s great, but what you’re really looking forward to is what you ordered: those sizzling fajitas or a burrito stuffed to the max.

That’s exactly what the first day of the regular season is like. Preseason was fun, but now it’s time to feast.

As has been NHL custom since the 2014-’15 season, the league will open play with four contests this evening. The festivities officially begins at 7 p.m. when Toronto visits Winnipeg (SN and TVAS) in a matchup of the top two picks from the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, followed an hour later by St. Louis at Pittsburgh (NBCSN) for the Penguins’ banner raising ceremony. Round two finds its start at 10 p.m. with Calgary at Edmonton (SN and TVAS), trailed half an hour later by Philadelphia at San Jose (NBCSN). All times eastern.

In Season One of the “Game of the Day” series, we featured only one game. Last year, that number exploded to include all four opening day contests.

This season, let’s rein things in a bit and focus on one game per nation. Canada, you’re up first!

 

Given the Battle of Alberta happening later tonight, picking Canada’s featured game was a tough decision. There is no shame in wanting to watch a hard-fought rivalry C Connor McDavid and the Oilers dominate their first game of the season.

Unfortunately, that pales in comparison to the opportunity to take in the first of only two meetings of the season between RW Patrik Laine and C Auston Matthews.

There’s no doubt these offenses are capable of scoring. The Leafs registered 251 goals last season to rank fifth-best in the league, and Winnipeg trailed them by only two tallies to tie Columbus for sixth-most markers.

Of course, a lot of that offense came from each club’s respective first-round pick last year. Reigning Calder-winner Matthews buried all four goals in his NHL debut against the Senators en route to a 40-29-69 season. Not to be outdone too much, Laine – who finished in second in Calder voting last year – got his 36-28-64 rookie campaign kick-started with a power play goal and an assist on C Mathieu Perreault‘s game-tying goal in his first NHL game.

For those keeping score, Laine was the only one to win his first game in the big leagues. Then again, Matthews beat Laine to the playoffs… Suffice to say, these guys are good at their jobs.

With all that in mind, I’m most focused on Winnipeg’s net this evening for G Steve Mason‘s debut. While I am of the opinion that Mason is a minor improvement over last year’s starter G Connor Hellebuyck (seriously, emphasis on “minor” – to the point of being negligible), tonight may not be the best to prove that claim. In his only game against the Leafs last year, Mason – then a member of the Flyers – allowed six goals, including four in the third period. Of particular note was D Martin Marincin‘s tally to tie the game at three-all, his lone goal of the season and only the third of his career.

Yeah, that probably left a bad taste in Mason’s mouth when he heard that.

While making improvements in net is probably a good idea in the next couple years for General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff (all three current goalie contracts will be off the books by the 2019 offseason), he would also be wise to work on his defense that allowed an 11th-worst 31 shots against-per-game last year.

Then again, maybe all the Jets needed was a year of experience and an offseason of training. We’ll know if that’s the case based on the performance of another player entering his second season: D Josh Morrissey. At the ripe age of 21, he registered a +6 rating and a team-leading 139 blocks last season. If he can continue to grow into the shutdown blueliner he hinted at last year – and, if we get really greedy, improve on his 20 points (there’s few better to learn from than D Dustin Byfuglien) – maybe Winnipeg isn’t as far off the mark as we think.

Until then, Mason will have to be on top of his game to keep the Jets alive in this game – and ultimately the season.

 

As if the action in Manitoba wasn’t fun enough, there’s also the Penguins’ banner raising ceremony to take in. For Pittsburgh supporters, this is a joyous night; for most other hockey fans, it’ll be a night they’re glad to put behind them.

And even after the festivities are complete, fans are going to be treated to quite a hockey game featuring two of the most consistent teams of the past dozen years. The Penguins have qualified for the postseason for the last 11 years – three of which ended with them hoisting the Stanley Cup – for the longest active streak in the league, trailed by the Blues’ fourth-best six-straight playoff appearances.

If there’s one Blue Note ready to play this game, I’d peg newcomer F Brayden Schenn. He’s making his first club-debut since 2011-’12, and the team he was traded from has nurtured a special hatred in him for the black-and-gold.

The former Flyer has been brought into the St. Louis fold to generate more points for an offense that featured only three 50+ point scorers a season ago (RW Vladimir Tarasenko, F Jaden Schwartz and F Alex Steen). Schenn is a talented former first-rounder capable of playing either center or left wing that is coming off a 25-30-55 season, and it looks like he’ll center the second line for Schwartz and W Dmitrij Jaskin to start the season.

Beyond the usual culprits of C Sidney Crosby, RW Phil Kessel and C Evgeni Malkin, one Penguin to keep an eye on this evening is RW Ryan Reaves.  No, he probably won’t score a goal tonight – or maybe even a point at all – but I’m more interested in seeing if he has it in him to bring the muscle against former teammates of seven seasons. And if he does, who does he hit? Who hits back?

Seeing LW Cody McLeod‘s response to playing the Avalanche last season after being traded to Nashville, I have my suspicions on the topic: let’s just say I expect St. Louis’ new enforcer, RW Chris Thorburn, to be dressed this evening.


At least eight points are to be had this evening for these eight teams in action, and I expect Toronto, Pittsburgh, Edmonton and San Jose to be at the top of their respective divisions after all the action is complete.

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