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NHL teams should expect intense games

by Dan Rosen

Even though it's listed as the last preseason game on the New York Rangers' schedule and an exhibition game thrown into the middle of Metallurg Magnitogorsk's regular season, to the Russian team's general manager, the Victoria Cup is hardly just for show.

"If it is truly just an exhibition game, let's put away the glorious name -- the Victoria Cup," Gennady Velichkin told in an e-mail. "An ordinary exhibition game cannot have such a big name."

Velichkin makes a strong point for how important the Victoria Cup game is or should be, which is exactly what the International Ice Hockey Federation wants to hear.

Of the six preseason games the Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins will combine to play in Europe, the Victoria Cup game is the only one that's worth more than bragging rights. The real season starts Oct. 4 in both Prague and Stockholm.

This isn't to suggest the NHL squads won't give their European opponents their very best effort -- they should -- but they better be ready for a hard-fought game because SC Bern, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Eisbaren Berlin, HC Slovan, Jokerit Helsinki and Frolunda HC Goteborg are treating these games as if they're the real deal.

Not only do the games provide the europeans a chance to steal a cargo of bragging rights from the best league in the world, but for some of the younger players, it's also a chance to showcase themselves in front of NHL team personnel.

"I'm really looking forward to the game," St. Louis Blues prospect Lars Eller, who plays for Frolunda, told "It's a chance for me to measure myself against NHL competition and see where I'm at."

He's not alone.

Between the six European teams taking part in the NHL Challenge, there are at least a dozen NHL drafted prospects, including Frolunda's first-round picks, eller (2007) and erik Karlsson (2008, Ottawa). Frolunda hosts Ottawa on Oct. 2.

Roman Josi, Nashville's second-round pick this year, plays for SC Bern, which hosts the Rangers on Sept. 30.

"This is about the players and their experience," said SC Bern coach John Van Boxmeer, who played 11 NHL seasons. "We have some really good young players and this will be good for them to be able to see what the difference is between them and an NHL player."

Which means Van Boxmeer, like his European counterparts, doesn't plan on holding his players back.

"The athlete is an asset and you don't risk him no matter what, but most guys won't be saying that they're feeling hurt that day," said Peter Lee, the GM of Eisbaren Berlin, who hosts the Lightning on Sept. 28. "All our guys will be saying, 'I'm fit, I'm fit.' They'd need a broken bone before they'd say they can't play."

Magnitogorsk coach Valery Belousov said he would never tell a player, "Save your effort, you needn't show your best, this is just an exhibition game."

His team is going out there to beat the Rangers and win that Victoria Cup.

As for the threat of injury? Well, Belousov doesn't seem worried even though Magnitogorsk -- along with HC Slovan and Eisbaren Berlin -- begins play in the European Champions Hockey League roughly a week after the Victoria Cup game.

"Any professional player starts a game with a motivation to win," Belousov said. "We can not foresee, of course, what will come out of the game Oct. 1, but for many of our players it'll be a good chance to try themselves and, probably, to find an answer to the question, 'Do I meet the standards and the requirements of that League and could I play for one of its teams?' "

SC Bern forward Christian Dube already has, so to him the game against the Rangers truly is just an exhibition, which means risking injury just to win a glorified scrimmage isn't at the top of his list. Dube, though, plans to play just as hard as he would if it were a regular-season game because of how much it means to his Swiss teammates.

"For the Swiss guys it's a big challenge to play against the best players," Dube said. "When you play the New York Rangers, it's one of the most famous teams in the world, so I'm sure guys will be up for the challenge."

"If it is truly just an exhibition game, let's put away the glorious name -- the Victoria Cup.  An ordinary exhibition game cannot have such a big name."        -- Gennady Velichkin, General Manager of the Metallurg Magnitogorsk

  fairness, if the NHL teams feel the need to rest some of their regular players or test out a prospect one last time, it is their right to do so. This is still the preseason to the NHL teams and that's the time when fringe players or rookies try to win roster spots.

How many players each team takes to Europe remains to be seen.

"I don't know what the roster will be when we come to Switzerland," Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival said. "Will we have 30-40 players on the team? It's tough to say right now who will be dressing for the games."

At least for the Victoria Cup, IIHF Communications Director Szymon Szemberg said the Rangers agreed to play their normal roster of healthy players, but a provision was added in the contract stating how many rookies or minor-league players the Rangers would be allowed to play.

"When discussing this, the Rangers and the NHLPA people said, 'We are not bringing over a minor-league team,' " Szemberg said. "We realize that if the Rangers want to test a promising rookie, why shouldn't they? But, they are not testing 11 promising rookies."

Neither will Metallurg Magnitogorsk.

"One of the main goals is to find out where we are -- what our level is compared to that of the New York Rangers and the NHL in particular," Belousov said. "Teams from our country haven't played against the NHL ones for a long time, so that's going to be a great challenge, especially if we take into consideration that Metallurg is the reigning champion of europe."

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