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Round 2
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Stanley Cup Final

Seven surprises on opening night rosters

Wednesday, 10.05.2011 / 4:32 PM / 2011 NHL Face-Off

By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist

Contrary to what coaches and general managers might like you to believe, not every job is up for grabs at an NHL training camp. Most teams come to camp with a pretty good idea of who will be on their rosters -- and hope those players will stay healthy and productive all season.

But there are always a few players who find a way to impress a team during camp. Here are seven players who may have surprised even themselves by finding a home on an NHL roster for opening night.

Petr Sykora, New Jersey Devils (age 34) -- Devils GM Lou Lamoriello was very familiar with Sykora, a member of New Jersey's 2000 Cup-winning team who had played for five NHL clubs after being dealt by the Devils in 2002. The two-time 30-goal scorer split last season between the KHL and the Czech League and was offered a tryout deal by the Devils this summer.

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With offense at a premium in New Jersey, Sykora had a hat trick in a team scrimmage, scored twice in four preseason games and earned a one-year contract that will put him in an NHL uniform for the first time since he was waived by Minnesota midway through the 2009-10 season.

"I'm ecstatic," Sykora told the Newark Star-Ledger. "Of course I'm very happy. It's something that seemed very far away a couple of weeks ago and it happened."

Blair Betts, Montreal Canadiens (age 31) -- The last few days of training camp are always busy ones for NHL general managers, who spend hours deciding who to keep and who they'll try to pass through waivers. For a 31-year-old, fourth-line center like Betts, being placed on waivers at the end of camp can be the kiss of death -- the vast majority of players, young and old, who are placed on waivers slide through without being claimed.

Every now and then, however, a team finds someone on the waiver wire who it feels can fill a need. Such was the case with Betts, who was placed on waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers and claimed by the Canadiens. Montreal needed a center who could win faceoffs and kill penalties, and Betts figures to be a perfect fit.

Betts had 5 goals and 12 points for Philadelphia last season -- but he led Flyers forwards last season in faceoff percentage (50.3 percent) and shorthanded ice time per game (3:37). As a bonus, at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Betts adds some much-needed size to a group of forwards known more for its skill than its size.

Ray Emery, Chicago Blackhawks (age 29) -- It's tough to be an unemployed goaltender looking for work in the NHL these days. There are 60 jobs (two on each of the 30 teams) and a lot more than 60 competent goalies.

Emery has 94 wins in 173 NHL games and led the Ottawa Senators to the 2007 Cup Final, but had to overcome major hip surgery before getting a chance with Anaheim late last season. His 7-2-0 record wasn't good enough to earn him a contract, but he did get an invite to Chicago's training camp -- and despite some ups and downs, his experience earned him the backup job behind Corey Crawford. Alexander Salak, 24, who outplayed Emery statistically, was sent to the AHL Rockford IceHogs.

"We're in the fortunate position to have to make a difficult decision on two netminders that impressed throughout our entire training camp," general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement. "Having both Emery and Salak as a part of the Blackhawks organization makes us stronger in both the short term and long term."

Curtis Sanford
Goalie - CBJ
Curtis Sanford, Columbus Blue Jackets (age 32) -- Sanford's stint with the Jackets may not last long -- he's largely with the big club to back up Steve Mason while Mark Dekanich, who was expected to serve as the No. 2 goaltender, recovers from a high ankle sprain.

When Sanford makes an appearance for Columbus, it will be his first in the NHL since 2008-09, when he played 19 games for the Vancouver Canucks. He played for Montreal's AHL affiliate in Hamilton during the past two seasons, going 45-24-5 with nine shutouts and a 2.03 goals-against average.

Fabian Brunnstrom, Detroit Red Wings (age 26) -- Three summers ago, Brunnstrom was one of the hottest commodities in hockey -- a late-blooming forward who had never been drafted and was free to make a deal with any team. He chose Dallas and scored a hat trick in his first NHL game, but never turned into the star the Stars hoped he'd be. After scoring 17 goals and 29 points as a rookie in 2008-09, he split the following season between Dallas and the AHL Texas Stars.

He started last season with Texas, was dealt to Toronto at midseason and played for the AHL Toronto Marlies, finishing with a combined total of 15 goals and 35 points in 72 games.

Detroit, which had been interested in Brunnstrom three years ago, invited him to camp for a tryout, and he was good enough to earn a contract. But the Wings will start the season with 14 forwards, so while Brunnstrom has a contract, he'll have to earn the chance to play.

"He made the team, now he's got to earn a job," coach Mike Babcock said. "Those are two different things. He knows he's in for a battle. There's always injuries. He'll start off as a Red Wing. (He's) just got to keep battling."

Jay Pandolfo, New York Islanders (age 36) -- Veterans who can't get free-agent contracts often have to sign pro tryout deals in hopes that they'll impress someone enough to earn a job. Pandolfo, a two-time Cup winner in New Jersey, was let go by the Devils in the summer of 2010, played 12 games in the AHL with Springfield last season and looked like he might be at the end of the road. But he came to the Isles on a tryout deal and impressed GM Garth Snow enough to earn a contract this week.

Jay Pandolfo
Left Wing - NYI
"The biggest thing is to go out and play the right way every night," Pandolfo said. "I just want to do the little things that help teams win, be it penalty-killing or being on the ice when you have a lead late in the game."

Pandolfo, long one of the NHL's top checkers and penalty-killers, will be reunited with longtime New Jersey teammate Brian Rolston, who came to Long Island in a trade this summer. They'll be relied upon to provide some leadership to a young, improving team that's trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.

"I also want to lead by example on and off the ice," he said. "They have a great group of leadership here. It should be easy to fit in. I'm just going to do what I've always done."

Matt Read, Philadelphia Flyers (age 25) -- The NHL is full of players who've honed their skills in college. However, not many step right out of school and into an NHL roster spot -- especially when they'll be playing their first game at age 25. But Read, a forward who signed with the Flyers last spring after four seasons at Bemidji State, is prepared to do just that.

Read actually did have 13 points in 11 games with the Flyers' AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms, after signing last March. He came to camp needing to impress GM Paul Holmgren and coach Peter Laviolette -- and did just that, putting up 7 points in six preseason games and earning raves for his speed and for being strong on the puck.

More important, he earned a roster spot -- he'll make his NHL debut on Thursday night in Boston.

"He has been one of the smartest players on the ice," Holmgren said during training camp. "Matt Read has been more than tremendous."

It's hard to walk into that locker room and look those guys in the eye when they've played -- clearly, that was our best game we've played in the series -- and I thought we deserved a better fate tonight.

— Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on his team's 3-2 loss to the Canadiens in Game 3 on Sunday