PANTHERS (0-0-0) at BLACKHAWKS (0-0-0), Helsinki
Season series -- First of two meetings between inter-conference opponents as part of the 2009 Compuware NHL Premiere in Helsinki, Finland. Cristobal Huet stopped all 31 shots he faced in the only matchup between the teams last season, a 4-0 Chicago win at Sunrise, Fla. Huet is the Blackhawks' undisputed No. 1 goalie this season. Ben Eager scored twice in the game.
Big Story -- These are special games to begin the season, but both teams have specific journeys in mind that will continue throughout the next six months after they return to North America. The Blackhawks look to take the next step toward unseating Detroit in the Central Division and Pittsburgh as Stanley Cup champion. The Panthers are tired of knocking on the door of the playoffs and want to get back for the first time in 10 years.
Panthers: Pavel Bure played for the team and was still the League's most feared scorer when Florida last tasted postseason play. The Panthers amassed 93 points last season, the most since 98 helped them to their last playoff berth in 2000, but lost out on a tiebreaker to Montreal for the eighth and final Eastern Conference berth. With plenty of young, yet seasoned talent on the roster, there are no excuses this time around.
"Starting the year in Helsinki will be exciting," coach Peter DeBoer said. "But we know the most important thing will be the four points on the line. Despite the distractions of playing overseas, despite the different environment, our number one priority is to pick up the points and start the season off the right way. I know everybody understands the importance of a good start. That was hammered home last season."
Blackhawks: Perhaps Chicago's biggest challenge will be starting off strong against a non-traditional rival while not thinking ahead to their first game back in the States -- an Oct. 8 tilt against Detroit. Although the Blackhawks were a great success story last season, the Red Wings repeatedly stole their thunder, from the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field to their five-game series in the Western Conference Finals.
"Chicago had a great year last year and their expectations are even higher this year," forward Tomas Kopecky, a free-agent signing from the Wings, told The Chicago Tribune. "I don't see why we shouldn't have high expectations. We have a great team. That's pretty much what you can ask for is to have a chance to win the Cup and this chance right here is really good."
Who's Hot -- All of the Hawks seemed to be rolling in a 9-2 exhibition win over HC Davos, led by waiver pickup Radek Smolenak, who tallied twice. But the team stalled in a 2-1 loss to ZSC Zurich in the Victoria Cup. Cory Stillman, a 14-year veteran, proved he still knows what to do with the puck on his stick by netting a couple of goals in a 4-2 win over Jokerit in a Helsinki tune-up.
Injury Report -- Marian Hossa, the Blackhawks' key free-agent signing, is on injured reserve to start the season as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. Forward Adam Burish tore his ACL during the preseason and underwent surgery last Friday. Forward Kris Versteeg is recovering from an upper-body injury but expected to be in the lineup. The Panthers were without forward Stephen Weiss in the Jokerit game, as he battled a groin injury and flu symptoms.
Stat Pack -- Two, as in the number of Finnish-born players who are in Helsinki for this historic, two-game series. Florida defenseman Ville Koistinen, who has 86 games of NHL experience attained over the past two seasons with Nashville, was born in Oulu. Antti Niemi, one of three goalies to make the trip for Chicago, was born in Vantaa.
Puck Drop -- Finland gets its first taste of NHL hockey in what figures to be a unique and unforgettable experience for both sides. But these are two important points at stake, as the Panthers in particular understand after last season.
-- Brian Hunter, NHL.com