After months of offeseason training and weeks of practices and preseason games, the 2015-16 campaign is finally upon the Colorado Avalanche.
As one would expect, the team is pumped to begin the new year and to do it against the division-rival Minnesota Wild.
"We're expecting the same old stuff from them," said forward Matt Duchene about tonight's matchup. "They are not a team that we like very much, and I don't think they like us very much. It makes for a good rivalry. They play hard. There is not a lot of room. It's pretty ugly hockey most of the time. We got to win those games as well."
Opening night is the start of an 82-game marathon, one that every player and coach hopes will end in June with the Stanley Cup raised above their heads.
It's a long season, but the first game might stands out just a bit more. Since the schedule came out in late June, this game has been circled and it's one that is remembered even after the year concludes.
"Definitely some nerves. It's a game that sticks out a little more than a lot of games during the season," Duchene said. "It's always exciting. It's kind of the start of the a new chapter and you think about all the things you're going to experience in that year, and it starts tonight."
This is the second consecutive season and the third time in four years that the Avs open the new campaign against the Wild. The teams played a home-and-home series to begin last season, with Minnesota coming out victorious in each contest.
While last year's results weren't how Colorado wanted to begin the season, it was an opening night that still stood out for defenseman Nick Holden.
"Last year was my first time in the NHL (for opening night), which was a pretty special feeling," Holden said. "The year before, I didn't start the (first) game so I didn't get the whole fan experience and stuff like that. Last year was pretty special for me."
Players remember opening night, especially their first. That will be what 18-year-old Mikko Rantanen will experience tonight, as he makes his NHL debut.
Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog remembers his first game, though like Holden's moment, the final score wasn't the most memorable thing. It was a 3-0 loss to the Red Wings, but it was an evening where the Avs retired the number of Landeskog's favorite player growing up, Peter Forsberg, to the Pepsi Center rafters.
|An 18-year-old Gabriel Landeskog during his rookie season in 2011-12. |
"We didn't do very well, but I do make sure that when I look back at that game I make sure I remember it with good memories," he said. "It was Peter Forsberg night. I've got some good memories. I had some family in town."
Landeskog also recalls some of the veterans on that 2011-12 Colorado squad telling him, an 18-year-old rookie, to enjoy the moment. Now that he's an NHL vet, he'll do the same for the 2015-16 squad's resident teenager.
"I remember a couple guys that came up to me before puck drop and said, 'You only have one first game, make sure you enjoy it, soak it all in,'" the Avs captain said. "That is what I'll make sure that I'll tell Mikko tonight."
With so many things going on, the special introductions, the nerves before and during, the first game of the season can be a blur. Yet at the same time, the moments of the day can be engrained in nearly every player's mind like it was yesterday.
Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy's first opening night as a member of the Montreal Canadiens is a memory he hasn't forgotten.
"First game, I was late for the morning skate," Roy recalled Thursday morning. "It didn't start very well. I lost my way to the rink. I was with (Chris) Chelios and (Craig) Ludwig. It didn't start very well, but after that I was really nervous. I think Mario (Lemieux) scored the first two goals in the first period, and then we went on to win… I can't remember the final score.
"I remember after giving up the second goal, Larry Robinson came to me and said, 'Hey kid, don't worry. We'll get a couple. You'll be fine.' He actually took a shot wide, and picked up his own rebound and scored to make it a 2-1 game. It showed what kind of leader he was."
New memories will be made this evening at Pepsi Center, and ones that will hopefully jumpstart the Avalanche to a successful campaign.
On Wednesday, Roy said he wasn't sure who his two scratched defensemen would be for opening night. It was evident Thursday morning though as blueliners Brandon Gormley and Brad Stuart participated in morning skate with goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Reto Berra and forward Mikhail Grigorenko, who was previously announced as a healthy scratch against the Wild. The Avs' starting players didn't skate this morning.
However, don't expect newcomer Gormley or veteran Stuart to make usual appearances on the scratch list.
"We looked at the eight 'D' that played in the exhibition games, and we were pretty much happy with pretty much everybody. We felt those six were the best in training camp," Roy said of sitting Gormley and Stuart for the first game. "Things could change for the next game. Like I said yesterday, we're going to use those eight D's all year long. Tonight is just the first game of the season."
Roy's lineup will remain unchanged from what he has used in practices this past week, so expect his defensive combinations to include Francois Beauchemin with Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie with Nate Guenin, and Nikita Zadorov with Nick Holden.
Varlamov is anticipated to get the start in net.
PROJECTED LINE COMBINATIONS
Blake Comeau—Matt Duchene—Jarome Iginla
Gabriel Landeskog—Nathan MacKinnon—Alex Tanguay
Mikko Rantanen—Carl Soderberg—Borna Rendulic
Cody McLeod—John Mitchell—Jack Skille
Francois Beauchemin—Erik Johnson
Nate Guenin—Tyson Barrie
Nikita Zadorov—Nick Holden
Scratches: Brandon Gormley, Mikhail Grigorenko and Brad Stuart