Don't look now, but 2008-09 NHL season is already upon us — with overseas play, a tweak in the schedule, another Winter Classic and a historic centennial on tap.
It began Saturday in Prague, Czech Republic, when Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers beat Vincent Lecavalier and the revamped Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 as part of Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 Prague. Later in the evening, Sidney Crosby had a highlight-film assist and Tyler Kennedy got the winner in overtime as the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Ottawa Senators 4-3 in the first game of Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 Stockholm.
The same teams will face off again on Sunday.
For Crosby, whose team lost to the Detroit Red Wings in a memorable six-game Stanley Cup Final, the 2008-09 season couldn't begin soon enough.
"Being so close and not winning (last season) is still hard to digest," Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "Not closing the deal — it's hard not to think about it. Everybody I see brings it up and I'm reminded by it everywhere. You always see things on TV where guys had the Cup in their hometown. The memory of losing is not something that just goes away.
"I thought I was motivated before. It's definitely more now. Being that close and not being able to do it — it's just hard. The quicker you can get back to win it, the better.”
The first game in North America will be Oct. 9, when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit Joe Louis Arena to battle the defending champion Red Wings. Prior to the contest, the Wings will unveil their championship banner, No. 11 in club history.
The Pens play their regular-season home opener Oct. 11 against the New Jersey Devils.
One night prior, Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals — one of the surprise teams last season — open defense of their Southeast Division title in Atlanta.
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, winner of the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year last season, can sense the anticipation for the upcoming season.
"I can't tell you what other cities are feeling, but I can guarantee that the anticipation in the D.C. area has been tremendous," Boudreau told NHL.com. "The talk about the team is phenomenal and the build-up has been great. I just hope we can live up to it all."
The new season also will ring in a new look to the schedule as teams will play 24 games — instead of 32 — against their four divisional foes, 40 against the rest of the conference and 18 against teams in the other conferences. This allows for every team to skate in every building in the League at least once every two seasons.
"I guess we won't know until we get through it, but for one thing, it's going to include a lot more travel which will be a little more taxing. But I think it will be great for the fans to see some more teams they don't often get to see."
-- Flyers coach John Stevens on the new NHL schedule
"I guess we won't know until we get through it, but for one thing, it's going to include a lot more travel which will be a little more taxing," Philadelphia coach John Stevens
said. "But I think it will be great for the fans to see some more teams they don't often get to see.
"I think it might change the dynamics of the standings. Last year, with everybody playing so many games within the division, we had a big bulk moving along together in the standings. I think you might see some separation this year with the different format.”
Boudreau understands the importance of showcasing the League's talent across all 30 NHL cities.
"There's an awful lot of people who want to see Alex Ovechkin and every organization would want their fans to see all the great players," he said. "Alex wasn't even in every building last season but he'll have that chance now, so in that sense, the schedule change is certainly a plus."
Ovechkin, the League's Most Valuable Player, led the NHL with 65 goals and 112 points in 2007-08.
On New Year's Day the NHL will present the Winter Classic, which this year features an Original Six matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Red Wings at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Last season, before a record crowd of 71,217 at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y., the Penguins scored a memorable 2-1 shootout victory over the Sabres when Crosby connected for the clinching goal amid the backdrop of a steady snowfall.
"The NHL is delighted to bring its most historic rivalry to one of the most historic venues in sports," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "We thank (Blackhawks chairman) Rocky Wirtz and (Blackhawks president) John McDonough for their vision. We thank (Detroit owner) Mike Ilitch and the Red Wings for their cooperation. And we thank the entire Cubs organization and (Chicago) Mayor (Richard) Daley, in advance, for the warm welcome we know the city of Chicago will extend to our newest tradition."
The game in Chicago will mark the third regular-season outdoor NHL contest. In 2003, Montreal edged Edmonton, 4-3, before 57,167 in the Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.
"Chicago is widely known as the best sports town in the country," Daley said. "That's why we are delighted that the NHL has selected Chicago for its Winter Classic. We look forward to hosting the Detroit Red Wings in historic Wrigley Field and cheering the Chicago Blackhawks to victory."
While the League will celebrate the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, there will be a season-long celebration of the Montreal Canadiens' centennial season.
As part of that celebration, the All-Star Game will be held Jan. 25 at the Bell Centre, and the 2009 Entry Draft also will be held in Montreal the weekend of June 26-27. It's the first time in 17 years the Draft will be held in Montreal, when the 1992 selection process was held at the Montreal Forum.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.