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Fresh faces spark Rangers to 3-0 start

by Brian Hunter

A few thoughts as we celebrate a night full of saves, scoring and shootouts:

Newcomers shine – Madison Square Garden faithful, meet Wade Redden, Aaron Voros and Nikolai Zherdev.

Among the offseason acquisitions by the New York Rangers, that trio introduced itself to the home fans in grand style Thursday, as each scored a goal during a 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks that ran the Blueshirts' record to 3-0 for the first time since the 1989-90 season.

"Those two wins in Europe were nice, but if we don't come back here and take care of business in our home opener, it kind of makes it a moot point," Voros said. "I don't think we necessarily had the best game in the world … but all in all I think we played pretty well."

The Rangers began the season with a pair of 2-1 wins over Tampa Bay while taking part in the Bridgestone NHL Premiere Prague series. Not only was this their first regular-season game at the Garden, it was the first time, including the preseason, that their offense managed more than two goals against an NHL opponent (they beat SC Bern 8-1 and Metallurg Magnitogorsk 4-3 in exhibition games in Europe).

Brandon Dubinsky was an important part of the attack, registering a goal and two assists. He set up the go-ahead score by Voros in the second period and also got the crowd going with a number of big hits.

"I want to be that player that fans like because I'm willing to put it on the line every night for my teammates," said the 22-year-old Dubinsky, in his second NHL season. "That's kind of my M.O."

The revamped Blackhawks got a spectacular play from their own newcomer, All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell, whose end-to-end rush in the first period led to a Patrick Kane goal. But Cristobal Huet stopped only 25 of 29 shots in his Chicago debut.

"I'm disappointed to lose the first game," said Huet, who is expected to play again Saturday in Washington, where he led the Capitals to the playoffs last season after coming over from Montreal at the trade deadline. "We made some mistakes and I didn't help the team at the moment they needed me."

Perseverance pays — It hasn't always been easy for Dan LaCouture to find steady work in the NHL, but the 31-year-old winger kept plugging away and landed a spot on the Carolina Hurricanes' roster out of training camp this season.

Not known for his offensive prowess, LaCouture played the hero Friday by scoring what proved to be the game-winning goal in the Hurricanes' 6-4 triumph over the Florida Panthers at RBC Center. In previous stops with five other NHL teams, he had just 18 career goals in 326 games.

"I'm just happy I was able to contribute — it ended up being the game-winning goal," LaCouture said. "The biggest thing is, we won the game and I'm happy I was able to contribute in some way."

Carolina overcame an early 2-0 deficit to go in front, then broke a 3-3 tie when defenseman Joni Pitkanen scored in his Hurricanes debut. LaCouture provided the all-important insurance goal at 3:32 of the third when he collected the rebound of a Niclas Wallin shot and put a wrister past Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun.

"They didn't really have a defenseman around me, and I just wanted to make sure I was able to get the shot off quick enough before (the defense) was able to slide over," LaCouture said. "There's no better feeling."

Both teams are looking to get back to the playoffs, and the win was a bit of revenge for the Hurricanes, who haven't been there since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. They missed out last season after the Panthers — whose playoff drought extends back to 2000 — beat them at RBC Center in their final game of the season.

Off to a good start — Picking up that first win of the new season was important to the Atlanta Thrashers for a couple of reasons. For one, they began 2007-08 with six consecutive losses, leading to Bob Hartley's dismissal as coach, and never recovered. There was also the matter of getting new bench boss John Anderson started on the right foot.

Even if it wasn't easy.

Atlanta achieved that goal by outscoring the Washington Capitals 7-4 on Friday at Philips Arena. The Thrashers let a 3-0 lead get away before exploding for three goals in a 2:10 span late in the third period. Bryan Little scored twice, including the game-winner with 6:03 remaining.

"The way we started last year, we wanted to come out and get our first win of the season with our first game," Little said, adding the opener against the defending Southeast Division champs "could not have gone any better."

Little said Anderson "was just as excited as a player out there, and that is what is special about him." Although the new coach couldn't have been happy about how Atlanta squandered their early advantage, including giving up a shorthanded goal and two power-play markers by Washington's Mike Green just 52 seconds apart, they did hold Alexander Ovechkin off the scoresheet entirely.

"I tried to give him something to take, and I gave him a little of my glove. He took it. He has a hard shot and I thought he would try to overpower me, and that's what he did. He made a good try. I got a little piece of it, just enough."
-- Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, on stopping Kyle Okposo's penalty shot

Winning goalie Kari Lehtonen stopped the reigning Hart Trophy winner on a penalty shot 4:01 into the third, setting up the Thrashers' late offensive heroics.

"With so many new guys and so many different things we are doing out there, it's hard to change the things the guys are used to doing," Anderson said. "It's a work in progress, but the way we are scoring goals, that's what I've been trying to talk about all summer."

Playing like a veteranMartin Brodeur is used to having to make key saves under pressure late in games, but the New Jersey Devils' netminder came up with one of his biggest stops Friday when he denied New York Islanders rookie Kyle Okposo on a first-period penalty shot.

Zach Parise had just answered a Doug Weight power-play goal with one of his own, tying the game, but Okposo had a chance to regain the lead for a young, hungry group of Islanders after Colin White hooked him to the ice on a breakaway. In a battle between two low-scoring Atlantic Division rivals, a successful attempt by Okposo might have changed the complexion of the game. Instead, Brodeur got his glove on the rising shot and deflected it away. New Jersey then went on to a 2-1 win at Prudential Center.

"I tried to give him something to take, and I gave him a little of my glove," Brodeur said. "He took it. He has a hard shot and I thought he would try to overpower me, and that's what he did. He made a good try. I got a little piece of it, just enough."

Watching Brodeur turn aside Okposo en route to a 25-save performance, Brian Rolston marveled how the more things change, the more they stay the same – at least when it comes to the man between the pipes in New Jersey. Rolston won a Stanley Cup with Brodeur in 1995 and is now back for a second stint with the Devils.

"Marty is Marty. He is the best goalie of all-time," Rolston said. "He was awesome again tonight and unfortunately that is what everyone is expecting of him."

An early test — Looking to return to the playoffs following a one-year absence, the Buffalo Sabres were happy to welcome the Montreal Canadiens — the defending Eastern Conference champions for the regular season – to HSBC Arena for both team's season opener. They were even happier to prevail 2-1 in a shootout.

Ales Kotalik and Drew Stafford beat Carey Price on the Sabres' attempts in the tiebreaker while Ryan Miller was perfect at the other end against Robert Lang and Saku Koivu.

"This shows we can play one of the better teams in the East," said Thomas Vanek, who scored Buffalo's lone goal in regulation. "So far, so good."


Lang, a veteran of six previous NHL teams, got Montreal off to a fast start in its 100th season of hockey by scoring on the first shot against Miller. But the Canadiens couldn't solve him again for the remainder of the night.

"Anniversary or not, every season you try to get off to a good start," Lang said. "Good starts come in handy around Christmas and at the end of the year. You never know when you'll need them."

Believing in themselves — In a competitive Western Conference where almost every team seemingly expects to contend for a playoff berth, it can be easy to overlook the St. Louis Blues. David Backes sees that as a mistake.

"We've been kind of touted as a bottom-five team," Backes said. "It's a new year, it's a new team, it's a new season."

So then maybe it wasn't that surprising to see the Blues throttle the Nashville Predators 5-2 on Friday in their opener at Scottrade Center. They did it behind four power-play goals, including a pair from Keith Tkachuk and another courtesy of Backes.

The fans certainly believe in the fresh start. They packed the arena to capacity and ended up with plenty to cheer about, as the Blues scored twice in a 33-second span of the first period to overcome an early goal by the Predators and take the lead for good.

"The guys were just all fired up," said goalie Manny Legace, who made 20 saves. "If we can play to that intensity every single night, I like our chances."

All's well that ends well — It's safe to say that both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Dallas Stars felt pretty good about their chances at various points in Friday night's opener. It was that kind of a game.

The third period alone saw the Blue Jackets score three times in less than five minutes to claim a two-goal lead, only to have the Stars apparently grab all the momentum when they rallied for the tying scores just 33 seconds apart.

But there had to be a winner, and Rick Nash finally decided it when his goal with 20 seconds left in overtime gave Columbus an opening-night win at American Airlines Center.

"We had the momentum, lost it, and got it back in time for a big win," said Kristian Huselius said, whose first goal for the Blue Jackets came 2:30 into the third and started their surge.

Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock won a Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999 and made a return trip to the Final the following season, but he's now in charge of trying to lead the Blue Jackets to the playoffs for the first time. Getting the extra point in their opener was a good start.

"It was a game that probably had more ebbs and flows in it than any one we've been involved in in a long time," Hitchcock said.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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