The 105th season of the National Hockey League–and the 104th in which they will actually play games; remember 2004-05 was completely wiped out by a strike–will debut tonight, finally looking at something resembling normalcy with arenas in both countries at full capacity, and teams who missed out on something better than they wound up with ready to be battle on opposite coasts, in what will likely be relative obscurity.
In New York, at roughly the same time the Yankees will open their Division Series against the Cleveland Guardians, the Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning will officially kick things off, with the Rangers looking for revenge against the team that finally stopped them in their surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals. Now in their second year under coach Gerald Gallant, expectations are even higher for the Broadway Blueshirts to take another step toward their second title in the last 80-plus years, nearly 30 removed from the 1994 run they got to savor for the balance of the calendar year as a first strike forced the ensuing season to start in January.
The Lightning, attempting to win a third consecutive Stanley Cup, were denied that achievement by the Colorado Avalanche, who won only their second overall in their history. It’s an intriguing match-up, to be sure, but in a city as baseball-mad as New York, and with the Mets’ disappointment still fresh in many fans’ minds, aside from those inside Madison Square Garden and with the few hundred thousand fans who will somehow choose to watch ESPN, it’s likely to be seen more in highlights than live.
Meanwhile, the Kings will drop their own first puck in Dodger-crazed Los Angeles roughly an hour after Chavez Ravine sees the first pitch of their Division Series against the San Diego Padres, the first time these two teams will do battle in a post-season series in front of actual people (they did face each other in 2020). The Kings did make last year’s playoffs and extended the Edmonton Oilers to six games before bowing out. Anze Kopitar’s healthy and ready, though, and motivated to get his team back for another shot.
The Vegas Golden Knights are even more motivated, coming off their first playoff-less post-season in their short history and witn a new coach, Bruce Cassidy, late of the Boston Bruins, whose 107-point regular season was derailed by a gritty Carolina Panthers squad early in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Cassidy is replacing Peter DeBoer, now heading up an underachieving Dallas Stars team. And of course his predescessor, and the architect of the Knights’ early success, Gerald Gallant, will be behind the bench in New York tonight.
So what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.
Interestingly, neither game involves a Canadian team because, heck, it’s ESPN, and the two top markets are involved. On a night where, candidly, few of them are likely to care. So much for counterprogramming strategy.
But those that do will be ready to begin a long haul, through what will undoubtedly be a long, trying winter, with plenty of turns and surprises ahead. I’m not even sure where I’ll be when it ends.
But I know I’ll at least be following what happens tonight on a second screen, because no matter what the competition is, there’s always room for hockey in my mind, and the hope of any opening night quickens my heart.
Hope you’ll figure out a way to catch a glimpse yourself.