DETROIT – After a longer than usual summer, the waiting is all but over for the Red Wings.
After 165 days between meaningful games, the Red Wings will drop the puck on the 2014-15 season against the Boston Bruins Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena.
“That’s the longest break that I’ve had in my career,” goalie Jimmy Howard said following Wednesday’s practice at Joe Louis Arena. “A lot of us are chomping at the bit to get back out there.”
The fact that the Red Wings are opening the new campaign against the Bruins – their Atlantic Division rivals – who knocked them out in the first round of last spring’s playoffs isn’t all that significant to the players.
“If that’s the way you guys want to (read) into it, maybe, but for us it’s just about getting off to a good start,” Howard said. “Last year is last year and right now everyone is starting with zeroes across the board. We’re just excited to get back out there. I don’t think it would matter who our opponent would be. It would be the exact same thing no matter what.”
The opening month will definitely be a test for Detroit. Following Thursday’s opener against last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Red Wings host the second-best overall team from a season ago, the Anaheim Ducks, on Saturday, before welcoming the Bruins back to town next Wednesday.
“It’s pretty intense, isn’t it?” Howard asked, rhetorically. “It’s the old cliché and we’ve said it a million times, but we just gotta live in the moment and play one game at a time. It’s pretty silly to say that, but it’s true, I mean, we have a lot of good hockey teams that we’re up against very early in the season and a lot of good tests. We’re going to see what we’re made of.”
For more than a month now, the Red Wings have been hard at work preparing for the long arduous season and learning special-teams systems implemented by new assistant coaches Tony Granato and Jim Hiller. But with new seasons come high hopes and expectations for success.
“It’s an exciting time of the year every year,” coach Mike Babcock said. “There’s lots of optimism at the start of the year we have to get out there and show that we’re good.”
Many in the hockey world believe the Red Wings’ 2014-15 squad has a similar look to last season’s group. In reality that may be true as many young players on this year’s rosters dipped their toes in the NHL waters last season. However, several newer faces – guys not in last October’s opening-roster lineup – can expect to play Thursday.
“I’ve had some people say that the roster is the same, but there are six forwards different so it’s night and day different from what it was,” Babcock said. “It’s a much quicker team, a much more youthful team.
“I thought last year was the greatest transition we’ve had since ’09. I think we’re a young team going in the right direction.”
Center Riley Sheahan and wingers Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Gustav Nyquist, and likely Andrej Nestrasil, will play in their first season opener at the NHL level. Should 23-year-old Nestrasil be in the lineup, the game would also mark his NHL debut.
A lingering back injury prevented center Darren Helm from playing in last season’s opening win against Buffalo. He’s expected to center the team’s third line, because Pavel Datsyuk confirmed Wednesday that he’s out for the opener with a separated right shoulder.
At the start of training camp, Babcock had intended for Helm to start the season on Datsyuk’s line, but that was before the Russian star was injured in the preseason opener last month.
Captain Henrik Zetterberg’s line, with Johan Franzen and Justin Abdelkader, along with Drew Miller and Joakim Andersson are the only forwards, who were in last year’s opener.
In Wednesday’s practice, the Wings had Zetterberg, Sheahan, Helm and Luke Glendening as their four centers, though Babcock declined to announce the team’s lineup. If the practice is any indication to what Thursday's lineup is then forward Daniel Cleary and center Stephen Weiss will be healthy scratches.
“Why don’t we just announce the lineup tomorrow so if anything changes I don’t have to change my mind,” he said.
HOWARD’S GOAL: It’s no secret that Howard wasn’t happy with the way he ended last season. Statistically speaking, 2013-14 was his worst campaign in the past three, finishing with a 2.66 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.
But now, the 30-year-old goalie is primed to prove that he belongs in the conversation about the league’s top goaltenders.
“I want to be back to where I was a couple of seasons ago,” he said. “It’s simple as that. It’s not about reinventing the wheel or splitting atoms. It’s just going out there and stopping pucks.”
BRUINS OPENER: For the first time in 41 years, the Red Wings will open an NHL season at home against the Boston Bruins. The last time the two Original Six rivals got together to open a season was in 1973, when the Red Wings dropped a 9-4 decision to Boston.
The Wings are 4-6-0 against the Bruins in home openers.
Thursday’s contest will mark the 11th all-time home opener against the Bruins. The first in the series came in 1926, which happened to be the Detroit franchise’s first game in the NHL.