GAME: Montreal Canadiens (41-30-7-4) at Boston Bruins (41-19-15-7).
TIME: Wednesday, 7 p.m. EDT.
The Boston Bruins hope to finally end their Stanley Cup drought this season. But first, they'll try to avenge a first-round playoff exit as they open the season against the visiting Montreal Canadiens.
With the Red Sox winning their first World Series since 1918 last October, the Bruins are now the Boston sports franchise with the longest championship drought, having not won the Stanley Cup since 1972. They haven't played in the finals since 1990, and haven't even made it to the second round of the playoffs since 1999.
General manager Mike O'Connell has made no secret of the fact that he thinks he has built a team that can challenge for a championship in the new NHL, with a salary cap and rules changes designed to open up the ice and increase scoring opportunities.
"This team, the way it's set up with the rule changes, I think that we have to be considered one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup," O'Connell said in August, when the team announced the re-signing of center Joe Thornton to a three-year, $20 million contract.
Thornton is the primary reason O'Connell thinks he has a contender. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound former top overall draft pick is just 26 years old, and scored more than 20 goals in each of his last five NHL seasons. In 2003-04, he led the team in scoring with 23 goals and 50 assists.
The team's young core includes forwards Sergei Samsonov and Patrice Bergeron, and goalie Andrew Raycroft, the 2004 rookie of the year. Raycroft ended a brief holdout early in training camp, but defenseman Nick Boynton, an All-Star in 2003-04, remains unsigned.
Management has surrounded the young stars with veteran free agents. Defenseman Brian Leetch is 38; forward Shawn McEachern is 36; and forward Alex Zhamnov will be 35 on opening night.
"I think we look pretty strong, and I know a lot of people are saying we have a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup," Zhamnov said. "It's not going to be easy."
The Bruins look particularly strong up front, where Thornton is likely to center a line with Samsonov and Glen Murray.
Samsonov, a former rookie of the year, scored 19 or more goals in each of his first five seasons but has played just 66 games over the past two years due to wrist, knee and rib injuries. Murray had 30 or more goals in each of the last three seasons, including 44 in 2002-03, when he finished with a team-high 92 points.
The Bruins were second in the Eastern Conference with 104 points in 2003-2004, but failed to make it out of the first round against Montreal.
For the first time in their rich history, the Canadiens won a playoff series in which they trailed 3-1. And for the second time in three years, they knocked off the favored Bruins in the first round.
Top scorers Richard Zednik and Mike Ribeiro return to Montreal as well as playoff hero Alexei Kovalov. The Canadiens are hoping Kovalev can rediscover his scoring touch after he had six goals and 10 points in 11 playoff games in 2004.
Montreal added center Radek Bonk and forward Mathieu Dandenault to help make up for the losses of forwards Yannic Perreault, Darren Langdon and defenseman Patrice Brisebois. Bonk is hoping to regain the form that helped him score 70 points for Ottawa in 2001. Dandeneault provides veteran leadership after winning three Stanley Cups with Detroit.
Regardless of how they've reshaped their frontlines, the success of the Canadiens still hinges on the talents of goaltender Jose Theodore.
Theodore had a career-high 33 wins, a 2.27 GAA and six shutouts in 2003-04, and was rewarded with a three-year, $16 million contract on Sept. 2.
2003-04 STANDINGS: Canadiens - 93 points, 4th place, 11 PB, Northeast Division. Bruins - 104 points, 1st place, Northeast Division.
2003-04 TEAM LEADERS: Canadiens - Zednik, 26 goals; Ribeiro, 45 assists and 65 points; Langdon, 135 PIM. Bruins - Murray, 32 goals; Thornton, 50 assists and 73 points.
2003-04 SPECIAL TEAMS: Canadiens - Power play: 17.2 percent (55 for 319), 10th in NHL. Penalty killing: 82.5 percent (259 for 314), 21st. Bruins - Power play: 16.0 percent (48 for 300), 17th. Penalty killing: 83.6 percent (280 for 335), 17th (tied).
2003-04 GOALTENDERS: Canadiens - Theodore (33-28-5, 6 SO, 2.27 GAA); Yann Danis (no record). Bruins - Raycroft (29-18-9, 3, 2.05); Hannu Toivonen (no record).
2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Bruins, 5-0-1-2.
LAST MEETING: March 27, 2004. Bruins, 3-2. At Boston, Samsonov's second goal of the game with 27.6 seconds left in overtime lifted the Bruins to victory.
2003-04 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Canadiens - 0-0--0 on the road; Bruins - 0-00-0-0 at home.