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NHL kicks off 2009-10 season in dramatic fashion

by Brian Compton
Perhaps the biggest challenge the NHL will face in 2009-10 is finding a way to top its opening weekend.
Another tremendous NHL Premiere Series overseas. Overtime thrillers. Shootouts. A splendid debut for No. 1 draft choice John Tavares on Long Island. Yes sir, the NHL provided many great moments in its first weekend of the new season.
It all started on Thursday night, when Alex Ovechkin scored his first goal of the season in the Washington Capitals' 4-1 win at Boston. That was followed by the Montreal Canadiens' pulsating 4-3 overtime win at Toronto on a goal by Josh Gorges. Later that night, the Calgary Flames earned a 5-3 victory against the Vancouver Canucks at the Pengrowth Saddledome behind a goal and assist from Rene Bourque.
But the highlight of Thursday took place at the Pepsi Center, where Joe Sakic's No. 19 was raised to the rafters by the Colorado Avalanche. His former team then did him proud with a 5-2 victory against the San Jose Sharks.
"That Joe Sakic ceremony was one of the most amazing things that I have ever seen in my life," said rookie forward Matt Duchene, who was taken third by Colorado at the 2009 Entry Draft. "He almost has an aura that kind of rubs off on guys."
Friday was highlighted by the opening of the 2009 Compuware NHL Premiere Series. The festivities began in Helsinki, Finland, where the Florida Panthers earned a 4-3 shootout win against the Chicago Blackhawks. The St. Louis Blues then followed that up by rallying for an impressive 4-3 victory against the Detroit Red Wings behind a pair of goals by Paul Kariya.
"There is no give up in this team, that's for sure," Kariya said. "We got off to a horrible start (Friday) because I think we were a little hesitant in the first period, but we calmed down toward the middle of the second and started to play our game."
Later that night, the Pittsburgh Penguins raised their 2008-09 Stanley Cup championship banner at Mellon Arena. Sidney Crosby then scored for his club in a 3-2 win against the New York Rangers. The Philadelphia Flyers also got off to a solid start, as Ray Emery helped them blank the Carolina Hurricanes in a 2-0 decision at the RBC Center.
"It's the last time we're going to have opening night here, so that was going through my mind," Crosby said, referring to the team's move into the Consol Energy Center next October. "I remember going through those years, little flashbacks of losing and things like that. A lot went through my mind, through the two minutes it took to get up there, whatever it was. Once it was up there, it was time to move on."
Saturday was one of the busiest days of the year for the NHL, as all 30 teams were in action across North America -- and Europe. Chicago kicked things off by bouncing back with a 4-0 win against Florida before St. Louis completed its impressive sweep in a 5-3 victory against Detroit. Keith Tkachuk scored twice for the Blues, while Ty Conklin picked up the win against his former team.
"Detroit is the best team in the Western Conference and you try to measure yourself as a group against them," Tkachuk said. "To come over here and beat them twice is huge for us and hopefully we can keep building and learn how to play like a team like that."
Back on the continent to the west, the NHL was in full swing. Colorado continued its winning ways as Craig Anderson blanked the Canucks in a 3-0 win at the Pepsi Center. Boston showed it still possesses plenty of offense despite trading Phil Kessel to Toronto in a 7-2 win against Carolina. Montreal picked up another overtime victory -- courtesy of Brian Gionta -- in a 2-1 decision at Buffalo, while Philadelphia put forth a second straight impressive showing with a 5-2 victory at New Jersey.
"It's certainly the type of start you hope for but you can't really predict anything," Emery said after leading the Flyers to a 2-0-0 start on the road for the first time in team history. "You just want to have a good game and get off to a good start. We're playing well and we're healthy."
The NHL was also on full display in New York. Along with the Sabres' home opener, the Rangers and Islanders also kicked off their home campaigns on Saturday night.
On Long Island, Tavares made his NHL debut and did not disappoint the capacity crowd of 16,250 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. After recording his first point with an assist on Mark Streit's power-play goal midway through the first period, Tavares tallied his first goal at 7:09 of the second and nearly scored again just three minutes later on a breakaway that was denied by Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Despite his two-point night, his Islanders lost in a shootout, 4-3.
"We really played our style and got the crowd into it," Tavares said. "I think we played true Islander hockey. It's definitely disappointing on the result. There's a lot of positives to take from it."
In Manhattan, the Rangers bounced back from Friday's loss at Pittsburgh with a 5-2 win against the Ottawa Senators. Michael Del Zotto, the team's first-round draft choice in 2008, scored his first NHL goal in the victory.
"I don't think you can put words to it, it's just an unbelievable feeling," Del Zotto said. "I was pretty excited, and saw that my mom was crying in the stands. It makes it even that much more better that my family was here."
There were plenty of goals further to the south. Ovechkin found the back of the net again in Washington's 6-4 win against Toronto at the Verizon Center, while Rich Peverley and Ilya Kovalchuk each scored twice in a 6-3 victory against Atlanta at Philips Arena.
"We can score goals," Thrashers coach John Anderson said. "It's the same as last year. We haven't lost that scoring ability, which I like."
In Columbus, the Blue Jackets spoiled Todd Richards' NHL coaching debut with a 2-1 victory against the Minnesota Wild. R.J. Umberger scored a shorthanded goal for Columbus, while sophomore sensation Steve Mason made 32 saves. In Dallas, it was Dan Ellis who spoiled Marc Crawford's debut with the Stars as the Nashville Predators earned a thrilling 3-2 shootout victory at the American Airlines Center. Ellis made 38 saves through overtime before stopping four of five in the shootout. James Neal scored both goals for Dallas.
"When we have that type of effort, most nights we're going to be successful," Crawford said. "At this time of the year, you're concerned about process and I thought our process was good."
Tremendous crowds welcomed the NHL out west, too, although none of the home crowds went home happy. David Moss broke a 3-3 tie in the final minute of regulation when he stripped Nikolai Khabibulin of the puck to lift the Calgary Flames to a wild 4-3 win against the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place, while Joe Thornton had a goal and an assist to lead the San Jose Sharks to a 4-1 win at Anaheim.
In Los Angeles, the Dave Tippett regime got off to a tremendous start as the Phoenix Coyotes earned a 6-3 victory against the Kings at the Staples Center. Radim Vrbata scored twice for Phoenix.
"It's just one game," Tippett said. "It's a good feeling for those players, but the thing about this League is you have to step up for the next one."
Clearly, the NHL stepped up on opening weekend and provided another batch of tremendous memories.

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