When the puck drops in Prague on Friday, the 2019 National Hockey League (NHL) season will officially open for the Chicago Blackhawks as they take to the O2 Arena ice versus the Philadelphia Flyers.
In 2017, the Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators were the first teams to match up in the present-day NHL Global Series in Stockholm, Sweden. Since that game, the Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils opened the 2018-19 season in Gothenburg, Sweden on Oct. 6, 2018, and a month later in early November, the Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets took to the ice for a pair of regular-season games.
This marks the third trip to Europe for the Blackhawks, having closed their training camp in Berlin, Germany last week after an exhibition game against Eisbaren Berlin of the Deutsche Eishocke Liga.
After the opener, the Blackhawks head back home to host the San Jose Sharks on Thursday, Oct. 10 and the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, Oct. 12, at the United Center in Chicago.
Friday, Oct. 4 vs. Flyers (Prague, Czech Republic)
The Flyers have had an infusion of youth this season with young prospects from their farm system making the move to Philly. The Flyers now have depth down the middle thanks to the signing of Kevin Hayes, who will hopefully counter the loss of Nolan Patrick due to struggles with migraines.
Hayes, along with captain Claude Giroux and his 85-point showing last season, are coming off great camps and will be an integral part of the Flyers success this season, especially on the penalty kill. Hayes being on-ice with alternate captain Jakub Voracek, has shown to be a benefit to the former Ranger.
“He’s a real smart player,” said Voracek after a Flyers win over Boston. “It’s still preseason, but we are both big guys and there is no reason not to be on the puck most of the time, especially in the O zone because he is smart and is really good defensively, so it gives me more leeway to take more chances.”
Along with Hayes, Travis Konecny and Joel Farabee enter the regular season off of strong showings in camp. Konecny is strong on all sides of the line and, when down a man or two, he and Hayes look to be a formidable force in the penalty kill.
Farabee’s depth has shown this preseason, with strong performances on both the penalty kill and power play providing depth on both sides of the ice.
Carter Hart will start between the pipes for the Flyers in his first season as the starter. After a virtual carousel of goalies last season, he settled in for 31 games and finished with a 16-13-1 record.
PREDICTION: Blackhawks 4, Flyers 1
Thursday, Oct. 10 vs. Sharks (United Center, Chicago)
With the loss of captain Joe Pavelki to the Dallas Stars, Joonas Donskoi to the Colorado Avalanche and Gustav Nyquist to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Sharks will bring a new look to the ice in 2019 after falling just two games short of the Stanley Cup Final last season.
Last season, the Sharks were proficient chance generators in five-on-five‘s, generating the fourth-highest rate in goals and the fifth-highest of unblocked shots on offense. They were equally as efficient on the power play with Logan Couture and Brent Burns taking control at the top of the left faceoff circle, while they capitalized on the tipping abilities of Pavelski, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier to turn passes near the goal into opportunities.
Despite the losses, the Sharks’ core pairings of Barclay Goodrow and Melker Karlsson, Joe Thorton and Marcus Sorensen, Hertl and Evander Kane, and Meier and Couture all return, and while have scoring numbers to replace with the off-season departures, all are still be considered scoring threats.
Strength at the blue line is key for an offense such as the Sharks, and a healthy Erik Karlsson in the transition game along with significant ice-time for Brent Burns will be key for making up for the losses from the departing forwards. Look for Dalton Prout and Tim Heed to step up and make an impact.
In net, Martin Jones is entering his fifth year as San Jose’s starting goalie. Jones started in goal for 62 regular season games in 2018-19, ending up 36 wins and 19 losses and a 2.94 goals against average.
PREDICTION: Blackhawks 2, Sharks 1
Saturday, Oct. 12 vs. Jets (United Center, Chicago)
The Jets managed to sign restricted free agent forwards Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine to new contracts this past week, but the two powerhouse offensive threats missed out on all of training camp and will need to get up to speed during regular season play.
Three key defensemen are missing from last season’s roster that dropped their Western Conference first-round matchup with the St. Louis Blues in six games. After reaching the conference finals against the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18, the Jets are motivated to avenge last year’s short postseason.
“If you’re looking for any extra motivation, it’s great,” defenseman Josh Morrissey said. “Being a team that went from the Western Conference Final to not having a great season last year, now all of a sudden I’m not reading too much in the media, but it’s hard not to hear about the window — is it closing? — and things like that.
“It doesn’t come from wanting to prove people outside the team wrong, but we believe in ourselves, and we have a really tight-knit group and it’s changed a little bit, but that mindset is still there.”
Since the 2016-17 season, Laine ranks sixth in the NHL with 110 goals, while Connor’s 66-point season in 2018-19 was an NHL career high. Joining the duo in the offensive zone charge will be the Jets’ top-six forwards from last season, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers and Bryan Little.
With 543 goals scored in the past two seasons, the Jets are only behind Tampa Bay (609) and Toronto (556) in that category.
Defensively, the Jets will need to replace Jacob Trouba who left for the Rangers, but received Neal Pionk, the No. 20 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft. With Morrisey, Pionk, Dustin Byfuglien and Dmitry Kulikov as their top four, they should be strong defending their own zone.
In goal, Connor Hellebuyck will continue to handle work as the starter between the pipes for the Jets in 2019-20. While at times he was inconsistent during last season, he still posted a .913 save percentage along with a 34-23-3 record in his 63 appearances.