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Wings open NHL season as favorites to win it again

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Now that the Detroit Red Wings have wrapped their octopus tentacles around the Stanley Cup, don't expect the 11-time champions to let it go anytime soon.

Marian Hossa and the Pittsburgh Penguins gave it their best shot last spring before falling short in the finals. Hossa saw the writing on the wall, and didn't care about extra zeros on his check, so he jumped from the Steel City to Hockeytown for a shot at the title.

"He loves winning and he believes that that's the team that can do it for him," former Penguins teammate Jordan Staal said. "Hopefully, in the playoffs we see him again and we beat him. ... He believes he can win with that team and we'll see what happens."

Hossa isn't alone.

Powered by an offense that pays as much attention to defense without sacrificing scoring, the Red Wings rolled to their first title since 2002. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk combined for 74 goals as linemates and a staggering plus-71 rating.

Pair them with Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and three-time Cup-winning goalie Chris Osgood, and it's easy to see how Detroit earned the best record in the regular season and rode the wave to the championship.

Adding Hossa - who scored 29 goals while splitting last season with Atlanta and Pittsburgh - makes the Red Wings that much more formidable.

The Penguins are one of four teams set to begin the NHL regular season this weekend in Europe, where they take on the Ottawa Senators in a two-game set in Sweden. The New York Rangers will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in a pair of games in the Czech Republic.

They will return home next week to join 25 other clubs trying to figure out a way to take down the Wings.

"It was just a bad feeling," 21-year-old Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said of his first trip to the finals. "You can look at it two ways, getting that close and not accomplishing your dream, but you can also look at what a great run it was. Now I look back at it more as a memory. It's too bad that's how it ended up, but we're all hoping to get back to the same scenario with a different result."

For the second straight year, the NHL is beginning the regular season with games in Europe. In 2007, the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks got things going in London.

With so many NHL players coming from overseas, all this international goodwill could move the league to pursue a European division down the road. Such a move might be necessary as leagues such as the new KHL in Russia try to lure players with lucrative deals on the other side of the Atlantic.

Jaromir Jagr and former Senators goalie Ray Emery have already made the big move.

Once players become free agents, their next moves are often unpredictable. No one saw Hossa moving to the Red Wings, especially for only a one-year deal worth $7.45 million.

"The slate is clean now and we start fresh," Crosby said. "We lost some guys but it's up to us to make sure that we're better for last year no matter who we bring in.

"We have high expectations for ourselves."

Hossa, Jagr and Emery weren't the only big-name players on the move during the offseason. To offset the loss of Jagr, the Rangers signed longtime Vancouver Canucks captain Markus Naslund, traded with Columbus to acquire enigmatic forward Nikolai Zherdev, and retooled the defense with the additions of Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin.

The biggest move by a defenseman was made by Brian Campbell, who relocated from San Jose to the up-and-coming Chicago Blackhawks.

Goalies in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference won't have to deal with super-pest Sean Avery waving his arms or stick or doing anything else in front of them nearly as much this season - and not only because teams are playing their rivals fewer times.

Avery took his menacing ways from Broadway to Dallas, signing with the Stars. One difference this season is every team with have to deal with Avery and every other team at least once this season.

For the first time since the NHL returned from a season-long lockout in 2005, every team will play the other 29 teams in the league. Each club will also play three out-of-conference teams twice.

In order to pick up the extra games, teams will play clubs in their division six times instead of eight.

"Six is plenty, even for the fans," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. "It's better. Now you have more of an exclusivity of the games. ... If you have a little less games against your rival, it becomes a big matchup.

"For us, it's good to go out West more. We like it. I wouldn't play there, but it's kind of nice to go once in a while."

The same can be said about the Winter Classic, which makes it triumphant return at Chicago's Wrigley Field on New Year's Day after last season's ballyhooed debut in Buffalo.

The hometown Sabres hosted the Penguins in the NFL's Ralph Wilson Stadium, but the sequel will feature the Blackhawks and Red Wings in the Friendly Confines that is the home to baseball's Cubs.

"Obviously, that's going to be one of the highlights of the year playing in that game," said 19-year-old Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, last season's rookie of the year. "Wrigley Field, two Original Six teams ... they call it the Winter Classic and I guess with good reason.

"It doesn't really get more classic than that."

Time to drop the puck.

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