This NHL season’s opening weekend was one of the most highly anticipated in recent memory. Headlines abounded over the return of Jaromir Jagr, the debut of rookies Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog and the beginning of the Boston Bruins’s campaign to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Though those stories certainly held their own importance, all eyes and ears were tuned to Winnipeg, Manitoba where the Winnipeg Jets returned to the city for their first game in 15 years after the franchise moved to Phoenix in 1996. The Jets’s players, management and personnel will all move from Atlanta, where the Thrashers managed to make the postseason just once in eleven seasons, including a 12th place finish in the East last year. While they aren’t inheriting the most promising squad, fans in Winnipeg could not be happier with the return of hockey to Manitoba’s capital city.
The new Jets arena, MTS Centre, which used to host the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, holds just 15,004 – by far the smallest venue in the NHL. Though the capacity is lower than the rest of the NHL’s other arenas, MTS figures to be one of the most intimidating buildings in the league; all 41 home games are already sold-out, and the cramped nature of the downtown-centered arena will put the hockey-starved fans right on top of the visiting team. In their season opener on Sunday night, however, the Jets couldn’t take full advantage of the home crowd, falling 5-1 to the Montreal Canadiens. Perhaps the young team got caught up in the fervor surrounding Winnipeg’s first hockey action in over a decade but, without a doubt, the fans will have more to look forward to as the Jets return to MTS on Monday against Pittsburgh.
Before the Jets got their first season underway, the Philadelphia Flyers got the NHL’s 95th season started with a 2-1 win over the defending champion Boston Bruins. The Bruins, who snuck their way past last year’s favorites like the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks, raised their sixth Stanley Cup Championship banner last Thursday before falling to the new-look Philadelphia Flyers. Newly acquired Jaromir Jagr notched his 1,600th career point – which also happened to be his first as a Flyer – and quieted many critics saying his attempted return to the NHL would not amount to anything.
Elsewhere in the East, the two favorites, Washington and Pittsburgh, are off to good starts, earning a combined record of 5-0-1 through six games. Pittsburgh has been without the services of star forwards Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, but with forward Jordan Staal, defenseman Kris Letang and goaltender Marc- Andre Fleury leading the way, the Pens are picking up right where they left off after a strong postseason in 2011. The Capitals, meanwhile, have already returned to their habit of keeping fans on the edge of their seats, winning their opener 4-3 in overtime and their second game, 6-5, in a shootout.
Much of the current drama in the NHL may be focused on the Eastern Conference, but there is no denying that the new faces of the league are primarily found out West. Number one overall draft pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored the game-tying goal in the third period of his first game with the Edmonton Oilers, officially starting what is sure to be a fun career to watch. The second overall pick, Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche, also made his debut this past week, but did not make the same sort of immediate impact as Nugent-Hopkins. As the season progresses, however, one would have to assume that it will be these two forwards battling it out for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s top rookie.
Also in Colorado, a man who is 20 years Landeskog’s senior was receiving all the praise at Pepsi Center. Peter Forsberg, who led the Avs to two Stanley Cups and holds multiple franchise records, had his number ‘21′ retired before Saturday night’s game against Detroit. Forsberg ranks fifth on the Avalanche’s all-time scoring list, but his numbers were hampered significantly by injury.
As the season progresses, there will be multiple storylines to look out for. In the East, the continuing Sidney Crosby vs. Evgeni Malkin saga deserves attention, as does Alex Ovechkin’s quest for a return to the goal-scoring elite. Out West, the focus will be on the race between the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks as well as the growth of the NHL’s young stars like Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Linus Omark, Nugent-Hopkins and Landeskog. Much remains to be seen this winter, but one thing we know for sure is that the level of competition will continue to amaze and entertain.
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