At long last we are back, and we're back in style, too. This season kicked off with a fantastic weekend of great games and great performances, and I think we can all agree that it feels good to be watching hockey again. In all of the games we saw there was plenty to take note of, plenty of players that impressed and plenty of reasons to feel good -- or feel worried -- about your team.
Here's my take on the major things I noticed during the 2012-13 NHL season's opening weekend.
The game isn't the only thing that's back
The first thing that jumped out at me Saturday night was how the fans have come back in droves. Every interview I did before the lockout ended, everyone was saying, "They won't come back, there will be demonstrations and buildings will be empty. People are going to send a message to the NHL." That was entirely the opposite of what we saw Saturday. We had record crowds, buildings that aren't usually packed were packed and the atmosphere was electric. The people have come back bigger and better than ever, so that was the one thing that really grabbed me opening night: the love affair between these fans and the NHL.
I think it maybe caught everybody by surprise. We knew Toronto would be packed and we knew Boston would be packed, but Tampa was packed, Florida was packed and Philly set a record for its biggest crowd ever. We could see this even before the season openers when we looked at attendance at training camp scrimmages. Minnesota had 13,000 people in the building for theirs. The way the fans have come back and showed their loyalty and their passion for our sport is just amazing.
Don't worry about the Kings … yet
Los Angeles was supposed to come out and celebrate raising its first Stanley Cup banner in style, but that didn't really happen thanks to the Chicago Blackhawks. That said, while the score was lopsided, this is one you just have to write off, and that's exactly what Darryl Sutter will do. Coaches hate that banner raising. It's emotional and a bit of a distraction, which makes winning your home opener after winning the Cup that much harder -- and the numbers bear it out. Of the last 10 Stanley Cup champions including the Kings, only three of them (and just one in the last five) has won the night it raised its championship banner.
Sutter will just write that off, but L.A. had better be good in its second game. Sutter won't be writing that one off.
Here come the Hawks
I think that opener in L.A. said more about Chicago than it did L.A. -- the Blackhawks looked great all night. Marian Hossa was not just back and healthy, but he looked unbelievable. He had the puck all night long, and so did Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who were all over the ice.
That said, Corey Crawford is the big unknown with Chicago, and he looked OK against the Kings. You know Chicago is going to score and move the puck. If Crawford and Ray Emery -- who looked shaky but got the win against Phoenix on Sunday -- can give the Blackhawks adequate goaltending, that team could be at the top of the Western Conference standings.
The Rangers are staking an early claim for the most disappointing start to the season. In their opener they had very little going five-on-five against Boston, which looked like the better team Saturday by a mile. That was a game in which the 3-1 final score almost flattered the Rangers with how they played. Things didn't get much better in New York's home opener on Sunday when the Rangers got beaten by a very strong Pittsburgh team.
In that opener against Boston there were some things that could be chalked up to it being early in the season, like sloppy line changes, but Henrik Lundqvist was the best player on the ice for the Rangers by far, and that isn't supposed to be the case for the Rangers this year. Lundqvist wasn't going to have to win games 1-0 or 2-1, but if you watched the opener, that's exactly what happened. I thought Rick Nash has looked OK so far, but with all of the offense this team is supposed to have, I'm expecting much more than what they showed this weekend.
Trouble in Vancouver
If anyone has been more disappointing than the Rangers through two games, it's probably the Canucks. Cory Schneider is going to take some heat after a poor first performance, particularly since Roberto Luongo came in and looked a heck of a lot better, and was solid in a start against Edmonton the next night as well. Add into that that Vancouver's offense didn't create a lot of chances or a lot of pressure and there is definite cause for concern. People also forget that David Booth and Ryan Kesler aren't playing for Vancouver right now, either. Those guys are big, physical forwards that Vancouver is counting on for a lot of points.
I think a little of the problem with Vancouver was that with the talk of the goaltending situation, they may not have been mentally prepared. If a goaltending controversy really gets sparked that could hinder the Canucks' preparation significantly. Schneider will get a couple of games before he completely loses the job, but it will be interesting. It's very different being the lead dog than being the backup. Usually when you come in as the backup the game is over, there's no pressure on you and you go out and stand on your head and everyone says, "This is great." When you're the No. 1 goaltender and it's your job to go win games, it's an entirely different mindset and an entirely different way of playing.
Schneider flunked his first test. That was his opportunity to put an exclamation point on the situation. All he did was get people thinking the Canucks can't trade Luongo. One game means nothing at this point, but Schneider missed a great opportunity to make it clear he was the No. 1 goalie in Vancouver.
Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are the big names in Minnesota now, but Dany Heatley was the guy who stole the attention Saturday night with two goals in the Wild's opener. That's a sign that this could be a special season in Minnesota, and the Wild's win Sunday night only adds to it. What happened in the Wild's first two games is exactly what I've been talking about. Parise is going to make those forwards better. He'll make Heatley better, he'll make Devin Setoguchi better and he'll make Mikko Koivu better. People forget that Minnesota was the first team to 20 wins last year and then they ran into an unbelievable amount of injury problems.
They also forget that Koivu is probably the best player in the NHL no one knows about. When I coached Tampa Bay and we played Minnesota he was the most dominant player on the ice. He can do that and he's done that at times when he's healthy. Then you throw in Mikael Granlund to give them a new weapon. Then you look at what Suter is going to do to make that young defensive corps better. Here's a guy that's going to be on the ice basically half the game, and that takes a lot of pressure off the young defensemen they've got there. Also, Backstrom is a heck of a goaltender.
I think Minnesota, with Parise and Suter, when you look at the West, they're as good as any team in the West. When you look at what they've done so far in their first two games I have to say I feel pretty good about my Stanley Cup pick so far.
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