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NHL Face-Off, top matchups highlight opening night

by Brian Hunter /
There may only be three games on Thursday's schedule, but opening night in the NHL offers up enough excitement and thrills to rival any 12-game Saturday night.

Welcome to's 2011 Face-Off blog, where you'll want to check back not just over the next 24 hours, but all weekend long as our writers and correspondents from around the League bring you up to date on everything that's happening as the season begins everywhere from Vancouver to Boston to the Compuware NHL Premiere games taking place over in Sweden, Finland and Germany.

First, a quick overview of what fans can look forward to Thursday:

Even before the first puck drops, hockey enthusiasts will be rocking as the 2011 Molson Canadian NHL Face-Off comes to Winnipeg. As a prelude to the Jets playing their first regular-season game at the MTS Centre against the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday, the event features international rock legends Bachman & Turner ("Takin' Care of Business," anyone?) along with platinum-selling rockers Three Days Grace and Winnipeg's own Inward Eye all scheduled to perform.

The fun gets under way at "The Forks" in Winnipeg at 3 p.m. Central Time, with refreshments, prizes and plenty of family-friendly activities, and continues until 9 p.m. Jets captain Andrew Ladd will appear along with teammates Zach Bogosian, Tanner Glass, Ron Hainsey, Jim Slater and Mark Stuart. Those not in the area or otherwise unable to make it will still be able to catch highlights on the NHL Network, Versus and CBC.

Then there's the game action.

The Boston Bruins raise their Stanley Cup banner prior to their game against the Philadelphia Flyers, part of a Versus doubleheader beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern Time. These clubs have plenty of recent history dating back to when they met in the 2010 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic at Fenway Park. Several months later, the Flyers became only the third team in NHL history to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series, as they beat the Bruins en route to making the Stanley Cup Final. Boston paid Philadelphia back in another second-round matchup last spring, sweeping through on the way to ending a 39-year championship drought.

Meanwhile, over on the CBC at 7 p.m., one of the top rivalries in hockey adds another chapter as Original Six foes Montreal and Toronto face off from the Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs are determined to end a lengthy playoff drought, while the Canadiens are focused on knocking off the Bruins as Northeast Division champions and ending a championship drought that now approaches two decades in length.

The night won't be finished until the defending Presidents' Trophy winners, the Vancouver Canucks, play host to the Pittsburgh Penguins at 10 p.m. ET. It isn't likely the Canucks will be tuning in hours earlier to watch the Bruins' banner-raising -- after a devastating Game 7 loss on home ice in June saw favored Vancouver come up empty in its bid to win the first Cup in franchise history, this season is all about redemption and the path back to the playoffs begins in earnest Thursday. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby travelled with the team but isn't yet ready to play, but Evgeni Malkin had a dynamite preseason and hopes for good health and plenty of points this season.

We'll have much more here in the days to come, so get prepared to eat, drink and breathe hockey as the 2011-12 season gets under way.
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