The Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames were in the same division for 18 years, but it seems as if the rivalry between the NHL's two Rocky Mountain franchises is finally starting to brew after their first-ever playoff meeting last spring.
Calgary entered the 2019 postseason as the top team in the Western Conference during the regular season, but the Flames' playoff run ended quicker that they and many pundits thought after the Avs defeated them in the first round in only five games--winning four straight to close out the series.
It has been nearly six months since the teams last faced each other, but the emotions will be renewed early in the 2019-20 campaign as the Avalanche hosts the Flames in the season opener this evening at Pepsi Center.
"I'm sure it's going to be an intense game and an exciting game to watch and a fun game to play in," said Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog. "Opening night is always physical and always a lot of fun to play in. We can handle that style of game as well. We only got better and tougher over the summer. I'm excited about what this group can do. We'll be ready to go."
Defenseman Erik Johnson said he isn't expecting too much bad blood heading into the playoff rematch, noting that both clubs' personnel looks different since they last met in April. However, the Avs are still expecting some extra stuff before and after the play with the Flames looking for a small slice of redemption.
"I'm sure after-the-whistle stuff will happen, but it can happen against any team," Johnson said. "We're not worried about it. It's just a fun rivalry, fun team to play against."
Video: Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog before the season opens
In the grand scheme of things, last season's playoff series is just that--from last season. Colorado has a long campaign ahead, and tonight's matchup against the Flames is just one game of 82 over the next six-plus months.
"I'm sure they're going to be hungry to come in here and steal two points," Landeskog said. "For us, it's important to know that just because we beat them in four out of five games last April, it doesn't mean anything. This is a new season. We have a new group in here, and we got to make sure that we get off to a good start."
Video: Cale Makar before making his NHL regular-season debut
A highlight from that playoff series came in Game 3 when Calgary native Cale Makar made his NHL debut for the Avalanche, just 48 hours after playing in the NCAA National Championship Game and 72 hours after accepting the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player.
He then etched his name in the record books by scoring on his first shot, becoming the first defenseman in league history to tally his first career goal while making his NHL debut in the postseason. He ended up with six points (one goal, five assists) and 10 playoff games.
This evening's atmosphere will be a bit different for Makar as he makes his regular-season debut, but the opponent remains the same.
"For me, it's obviously my hometown team. It's going to be a fun one again," Makar said. "Obviously we played them in the playoffs, so I expect nothing less than a good matchup. I'm excited."
Despite having already experienced the most intense time of year, Makar said he'll try and get any nerves out of him before taking the ice in his first NHL opening night.
However, those kind of emotions before the first game of the year sometimes never go away. That's the case for veterans like Johnson and Landeskog.
"Even for an old guy like me, I still get butterflies and still get very excited obviously," the 26-year-old Landeskog said. "You train all summer, you wait all training camp, you try and get as ready as you can, but come opening night, you still have those butterflies. It doesn't matter how much you prepare or whatever, you're still going to get a little nervous, but it's all good."
Defenseman Conor Timmins is expected to make his NHL debut this evening after making the club's opening-night roster despite losing an entire season due to a head injury.
Timmins missed the all of 2018-19 campaign while dealing with post-concussion symptoms, but he has made significant progress since his last meaningful outing: Game 5 of the Ontario Hockey League Finals on May 11, 2018. He skated at the team's development camp in June and competed at the rookie tournament in Anaheim last month before appearing in three preseason games with the Avs.
Colorado general manager Joe Sakic said on Wednesday that Timmins earned his spot in the lineup, and head coach Jared Bednar agreed that the young blueliner deserved to start the year in the NHL.
"Previously, I feel there was no way that he wasn't going to play in the American League until at least Christmas and then get an opportunity to play if things went well," Bednar said. "But again, I tried to go into camp and evaluate guys based on what we see. Joe has his thoughts and his staff and then we get together, and it was a unanimous decision that he had made our hockey team. He was real good in exhibition."
Video: Bednar before Colorado's season opener vs. Calgary
OPENING NIGHT SUCCESS
The Avalanche has excelled in the first game of the season ever since the franchise played its first NHL game in 1979. Here is a look at some of the club's success on opening night:
- The Avs will begin their season at home for the 11th time in the last 14 years and for the 13th time in the last 17.
- The Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques franchise is 22-10-7 (.654) all-time on opening night, the second-best record in the NHL behind Tampa Bay (.692).
- The franchise owns a 27-8-4 (.744) all-time record in home openers. Colorado is 15-5-3 (.717) in home openers since moving from Quebec, which includes a 13-4-2 (.737) mark at Pepsi Center. Only Minnesota (.833; 13-1-4) has a higher points percentage in home openers.
- Philipp Grubauer will be making his first career NHL opening night start this evening. He will be the eighth different goaltender to start a season opener for the Avs in 24 seasons since relocating from Quebec, and the first other than Semyon Varlamov since Oct. 7, 2010 (Craig Anderson vs. Chicago).
- Colorado is facing Calgary on opening night for the first time since moving to Denver in 1995. Prior to the franchise relocating, the Quebec Nordiques and Flames met in the 1979-80 and 1980-81 season openers.