Ladies and gentlemen, the wait is finally over. After months of speculation about who is the best and how teams will play the first night of the NHL regular season is officially tonight. And it could not have come sooner. Actually it could have.
The New York Rangers and Phoenix Coyotes are not in action tonight but there is one thing that I would like to do and that is put the two in a head to head matchup by position and see who comes out on top. Lets get to it:
Forwards: Up front both of these teams have depth to talk about. In New York the Rangers have added Marian Gaborik, Christopher Higgins, Ales Kotalik, Enver Lisin, Vinny Prospal, and Donald Brashear through offseason acquisitions. Add in Russian rookie Artem Anisimov and you have a very different looking squad up front which saw the likes of Markus Naslund, Scott Gomez, and Nikolai Zherdev leave. Returning are names like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Chris Drury, and Sean Avery who will look to be a foundation the team will build from. This is a very different looking team and will no doubt take some time to mesh but the talent is there.
For the Coyotes, they have decided to cut down a bit on the youth and try to add some veteran presence up front. The addition of Robert Lang is huge as this veteran pivot will look to create chemistry on the ice with who ever he is with and off the ice with some of the young Czech players on the upstart Coyotes. Other additions like Taylor Pyatt and Vernon Fiddler will add to the depth and hopefully a jump in the special teams where the Coyotes have been sorely lacking both on the power play and penalty kill in the last few seasons. Add in the return of Radim Vrbata from Tampa Bay and the Coyotes have brought in some players who can add to the offense that was ranked 26th in goals for last season.
The Coyotes will be looking to young players like Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal to have big seasons in their third year. Mueller has come to camp in the best shape he has ever been in and is looking much better than last season. Hanzal will continue his development in his big body and will hopefully get some helpful pointers from someone like Robert Lang. The youth continues with players like Mikkel Boedker, Scottie Upshall, Petr Prucha, and Matthew Lombardi. Throw in the veteran Shane Doan and the offense has some serious potential to put up more goals.
However, what the Coyotes lack is what the Rangers have...a game breaker. While both teams have solid depth up front the lack of a game breaker in Phoenix puts the Rangers above them. Winner: RANGERS
Defense: The blue line is always key to any championship team. As the saying goes "Defense wins championships". Looking at New York the slight problem is a lack of experience. Four of the Rangers' six defensemen are 25 years old or younger. Rookies Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto impressed enough in training camp to earn a starting spot at this position and certainly have the potential to become good NHL defensemen. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi return to the lineup and will need to have strong years considering the two veteran defensemen, Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden, will need to bounce back after pretty dismal seasons. If the preseason is any indication of what is to come, the blue line may be in trouble if the veterans cannot bounce back.
What New York lacks on defense the Coyotes do have. Veteran defense is a big advantage to the Coyotes as Adrian Aucoin and Ed Jovanovski will lead a solid defensive corps that is a good mix of young and old. "Jovocop" will need to have a rebound season and be a catalyst for starting the Coyotes play up the ice. If he can return to the form which has made him a good defenseman in the NHL, it will be a big boost to the team.
The Coyotes added some physicality by bringing in Jim Vandermeer who is known to be a very gritty blueliner. Phoenix lacked bite on its blue line last season and, with the combination of Kurt Sauer, Vandermeer may be able to make life hard for opposing offenses.
The future of the Coyotes blueline lies in Zbynek Michalek and Keith Yandle. Both took huge strides last season and will be looked to take on a bigger role. Michalek's two way play has been crucial to what little success Phoenix has had the last few years as he led the entire NHL in blocked shots last season. He will need to continue his stellar defensive play. Yandle had a decent season as he garnered 30 points and drastically improved his defensive play. He needs to continue to refine his play but it seems like the Coyotes may have found a decent offensive defenseman in Keith Yandle.
Who is better? This one has to go to Phoenix. The depth and veteran leadership on the Phoenix blue line outweighs that of the Rangers by a long shot. If Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival can turn things around then maybe this changes but right now with a structured defensive system like that of Dave Tippett's coming in, the Coyotes will really be relying on their blue line if they want to have success this season. Winner: Coyotes
Goaltending: And here is where the scale tips. I like Ilya Bryzgalov as a starting goalie and think he has the talent to be very good in the NHL. That being said, Henrik Lundqvist is one of the top goalies in the NHL right now. Having been a Vezina finalist three times and winning at least 30 games in every season so far Lundqvist is the backbone of the New York Rangers. Bryzgalov will have do well with a new technical coach like Sean Burke and a solid defense in front of him, but Lundqvist's raw talent and skill beats out Bryzgalov. Winner: Rangers.
So who wins in the head to head matchup? Well the Rangers have two of the three categories so I will give it to them. However, it will be interesting to see how these two teams matchup this season as they have two meetings. On paper it seems the Rangers would come out on top but with Phoenix having a solid head coach in Dave Tippett who knows how well they play in a structured system. We'll call it a shootout win for the Rangers at this point.
Here are my predictions for the first night of games:
WSH@BOS: Offense vs Defense. The Bruins are very good at defense and are much more physical than the Washington Ovechkins. If Tim Thomas continues his Vezina caliber play then look for the B's to come out on top. 4-2 Bruins
MTL@TOR: The classic NHL rivalry is apart of the opening night festivities. The new look Maple Leafs are going to be looking for a big first win to get their season going while Montreal looks to erase the horrible year last season that was their 100th anniversary. This is a tough one as I am rooting for the Maple Leafs to make a comeback but Montreal will take this one. 4-3 Habs
SJS@COL: It is Joe Sakic night in Denver as the Avalanche will raise 19 to the rafters after an unbelievable career. But that is going to be the end of the joyous time for Avs fans as the San Jose Sharks will pick apart a team that is systematic and talented. It will be a long season in Colorado and it will start tonight. 4-1 Sharks
VAN@CGY: This will be the matchup to watch in the Northwest division as these two teams will slug it out all season for the divisional crown. Roberto Luongo is looking to have another big season and will need to if the Canucks want this division. Calgary looks strong again with the usual suspects of Iginla, Phaneuf, Regehr, and Kiprusoff. A full season of Olli Jokinen will be a big boost along with the acquisition of Jay Bouwmeester. It is a clash of the titans in the Northwest and the Canucks will come out on top. 3-2 Canucks.
So there you have it. The opening night of the season is tonight with the Rangers' first game tomorrow night in Pittsburgh and Phoenix's first one on Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings. Get the jerseys out and bundle up. ITS HOCKEY SEASON!