10 Thoughts from NHL’s 2011 Opening Night

Jim Neveau, NHL Senior Columnist

While it may not have the pageantry of the NFL’s opening Thursday night game, or the tradition of Opening Day in MLB, the start of a new NHL season is always an exciting event for fans of the sport. The prospect of all 30 teams starting from scratch toward the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup is exhilarating, and although only one team will hoist the sport’s holy grail in June, optimism springs eternal in this league.

Amidst all of the good feelings that come with the opening of the season, there was some good hockey played on Thursday night, as the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers, and Pittsburgh Penguins all got their seasons started with two points. Looking past just the box scores, however, there were 10 things that stood out in the three games that were played.

1. Bruins’ Cup Celebration: Epic Spectacle or Yawn-Inducing Snoozefest? 

The night in hockey opened up with the pageantry that took place in Boston, as the Bruins hoisted their Stanley Cup championship banner to the rafters at TD Banknorth Garden and celebrated their success last year. There were plenty of memorable moments, including Mark Recchi coming back onto the ice in full uniform to revel in the evening’s festivities with his former teammates, and members of the 1972 Bruins passing the baton to the latest incarnation of the franchise.

Stanley Cup
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While the ceremony was a little long (and who wouldn’t take a long time to celebrate something that hasn’t happened in 40 years?), there was one portion in particular that was too drawn out. At one point during the ceremony, the Bruins players came onto the ice, led by Zdeno Chara and the Cup. Chara hoisted it over his head and then the Bruins proceeded to pass it around to each other in a manner similar to the way they had done it in Vancouver back in June.

While it’s admirable that the Bruins wanted to share the Cup win with their fans in such a way, the fact of the matter is that it felt a bit contrived, and definitely took way too long. Even the fans at the Garden started to grow tired of things as the Cup was passed to lesser known players on the roster, and by the end of it most folks seemed eager to get the rest of the ceremony going.

The Bruins should rightfully be proud of their accomplishment four months ago, but while the rest of the ceremony was touching and cool, the Cup skate stood out like a sore thumb.

2. Ilya Bryzgalov Gives Hope to the Philly Faithful

One of the biggest stories of the NHL offseason was the acquisition of Ilya Bryzgalov by the Philadelphia Flyers. After signing him to a nine year contract extension, it was pretty clear that the team felt as though they finally had the franchise goaltender that hasn’t been around since at least the time of Ron Hextall patrolling the crease in the City of Brotherly Love.

With all of those expectations heaped upon him, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Bryzgalov be at least a little bit nervous in his regular season debut with the Flyers, and that nervousness showed as he allowed an early power play goal to Brad Marchand near the 10 minute mark of the first period. It was the kind of goal that any announcer who’s spent more than a day in the booth would say “the goalie wishes he could have back,” and Bryzgalov certainly would love to have the five-hole goal back on that play.

After that goal, however, Bryzgalov didn’t come unglued and let the Boston pressure get to him. In fact, Ilya showed a resolve that didn’t show itself very often in his time with the Phoenix Coyotes, and he quickly settled in and helped his team get a tight 2-1 victory over the B’s. He only ended up facing 23 shots behind the solid Philly defense, but he looked composed and ready to fight for the rest of the hockey game.

Obviously one game is not going to make or break Bryzgalov’s resume from his time in Philadelphia, but for the first night at least, he justified the faith that the Flyers organization put in him with a rock solid final 50 minutes of play.

3. Cup Hangover for the Bruins? 

One of the biggest obstacles facing any defending champion in any sport (besides being the one game every year that the opponent REALLY gets up for) is the prospect of having a hangover after all of the champagne has been drank and all the parades have concluded. In the NHL especially, teams are still practically pulling the confetti out of their hair when they reconvene for training camp a mere three months after hoisting the Cup, and so the notion of a Cup hangover is a very real possibility.

For a good example of what a Cup hangover looks like, one need look no further than last year’s defending champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. They played most of the season seemingly in a daze, and they ended up lucking into the playoffs on the final day of the season when the Dallas Stars were unable to defeat the lowly Minnesota Wild with their fate in their own hands. Chicago played sloppy and uninspired hockey most of the time, and they nearly didn’t have the opportunity to defend their crown.

As for the Bruins, they came out of the gate on fire in the opening minutes of Thursday’s game. Marchand and Tim Thomas especially looked full of energy as soon as the opening puck dropped, but as the game wore on, the adrenaline from the pre-game ceremony wore off, and the Bruins looked sluggish for the most part. Players like Chara and Tyler Seguin did do their parts in keeping the game close, but in the end, it was pretty apparent that a Cup hangover could be an obstacle facing this team moving forward.

James van Riemsdyk Flyers
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4. James van Riemsdyk vs. Zdeno Chara: The Battle That Thankfully Wasn’t 

In one final note about the Flyers/Bruins game, there was one particular play that stood out for what didn’t happen, but nearly did. In the second period, Flyers forward Claude Giroux went down hard into the boards after seemingly leaning into an onrushing Chara on a play in the offensive zone.

Seeing Giroux go down awkwardly obviously didn’t sit well with the Flyers, and several players expressed their outrage, including James van Riemsdyk. He went right after Chara, but he obviously failed to keep in mind that even though he is a respectable 6’3″, Chara has six inches and a whole lot of experience in playing hard-nosed hockey going for him. JVR looked as though he was about to be beaten to a pulp by the hulking Chara, but JVR’s teammate Brayden Coburn stepped in to save him from that pummeling.

The real question that arose, of course, is whether we as fans should be lauding van Riemsdyk’s courage in standing up for his teammate against a guy like Chara, or whether we should be questioning his sanity for doing such a thing. In the end, we should focus on the fact that the youngster stood up for a teammate in a heated situation, and we should also give credit to Coburn for distracting the lion with the chair, so to speak, and saved his teammate from what could have been a season-threatening beating.

5. James Reimer Stands Tall, but the Leafs Need to Help Him More 

Essentially picking up right where he left off last season, Maple Leafs’ goaltender James Reimer stood on his head in a big way on Thursday, stopping all 32 shots that the Montreal Canadiens fired at him, including 14 in the first and third periods. He looked remarkably poised under pressure, and he gave the Toronto faithful a reason to cheer the goalie that they have put so much faith in.

Even though he did look great and stymied the Canadiens all night long, the Leafs did not do him any favors defensively. They allowed way too much traffic to accumulate in front of him, and the result was a ton of deflected shots that challenged Reimer way more than he rightfully should have been.

The Leafs did win the game 2-0, but they only managed 18 shots against Carey Price, and when you factor in their defensive issues in this one, they are fortunate that they won their opener. They need to step up on both ends of the ice if they are going to make their way back to the playoffs for the first time in six years.

James Reimer Maple Leafs
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6. Thoughts on the Canadiens’ Effort 

The Canadiens were a two-faced team on Thursday night. One of those faces was the one seen during the first and third periods, and a completely different one was present in the second.

The Habs of the first and third stanzas were aggressive, driving hard to the net, and really trying to get their offense going. They were also active on defense, disrupting the Leafs’ cycling of the puck and attempting to block shots all over the ice. Even though they did not score in either frame, it was easy to see that they were the team in charge for the most part during that part of the game.

In the second period, however, Montreal looked lost in space. They gave up a quick short-handed goal to start the period, and they really couldn’t get things going after that. They committed three penalties, including a foolish too many men on the ice penalty while short-handed, and overall just looked like they were completely dispirited by what had transpired early on. It was interesting that they recovered so well in the third period, but that second 20 minutes doomed them.

Overall, the Canadiens’ effort was decent, but there are several areas they will need to get better. They were 0-for-5 on the power play, and in addition to improving on the man-advantage they will need to get better offensive scoring chances overall. If they can continue getting to the net and creating traffic, especially in front of divisional foes like Thomas and Reimer, then they should be able to score enough goals to give Carey Price a chance to win.

7. Matthew Lombardi Returns in Style 

Other than seeing the 1972 Bruins take the ice in Beantown, the coolest moment of opening night hands down was the goal scored by Maple Leafs F Matthew Lombardi. Shelved for nearly a year with a serious concussion, Lombardi made it look easy as he sliced through the Habs’ defense and scored a short-handed goal on Price.

It had been 18 months since Lombardi had last scored a goal in NHL play, and he looked very confident and comfortable on the ice all night. Whereas some guys would be constantly looking over their shoulders in order to avoid that kind of injury again, Lombardi stayed aware and avoided effectiveness-sucking paranoia.

He was also largely effective on the penalty killing unit for Toronto, spending nearly four minutes of the 11 that he played on the ice with only three teammates. The fact that head coach Ron Wilson is willing to put Lombardi in a situation like that illustrates that he is fully healed from the concussion that sidelined him for so long, and in the eyes of any NHL fan, that is a tremendous sight to see.

8. Penguins’ Special Teams Poses Problem for League 

Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins had one of the worst power plays in the league, only converting on 15.8% of their chances. This number was right alongside offensive juggernauts like Edmonton, Nashville, and Phoenix, but the team obviously had a decent excuse considering that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, their top two scorers, were both lost for a big chunk of the year because of injuries.

Their penalty killing unit was significantly better, however, stopping opposing teams at an 86.1% rate. That number qualified as the best in the league, and it was a big part of the reason that the team was able to stay successful even without their two studs on the ice.

Kicking off this season, the Pens still don’t have Crosby on the ice, but they do have Malkin and a talented group of role players to pick up the slack. Matt Cooke is one such guy, and he picked up a power play goal in addition to a second period short-handed tally in the game. Malkin had the primary assist on James Neal’s goal, and Kris Letang picked up two assists as well.

Overall, it was a great night for the Penguins on special teams, and if they continue to show the chemistry that defined the game for them last night in Vancouver, they should be right in the conversation as being designated the best team in the conference.

9. Vancouver’s Scoring Depth A Daunting Challenge for the West

When one thinks of the Canucks’ offense, two images immediately come to mind: Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Sure, Ryan Kesler gained some serious notoriety with his stellar season last year, and several other players are worth mentioning, but the two studs without a doubt are the Swedish Ginger Twins.

What should scare other teams in the NHL more than the Sedins’ ability is the fact that the Canucks have players up and down their lineup that can score. All four lines generated some quality chances against the Penguins, and the team as a whole ended up with 36 shots and goals by Maxim Lapierre (who probably made a bettor very rich by being the surprising first goal scorer for Vancouver), Keith Ballard, and Daniel Sedin.

Overall, it was a stellar offensive effort from a team that had to overcome a shaky start by  goaltender Roberto Luongo, and it was one that put the rest of the NHL on notice that the Canucks aren’t going to settle for just another trip to the Stanley Cup Final. They want to win the whole kit and caboodle.

10. Roberto Luongo and Marc Andre-Fleury: Mirror Images 

Speaking of the Vancouver goaltender, he and Penguins cage-minder Marc Andre-Fleury had an odd moment of symmetry in this game that really stood out.

On Pittsburgh’s first goal, James Neal fired a puck from behind the net and ended up going between Luongo’s legs and into the goal. It was an embarrassing tally for Luongo to give up, and was extremely reminiscent of a goal that he gave up to Nashville in last year’s playoffs. Luongo got better as the game went on, but he was made to look like a fool early on.

Not wanting to be outdone in the “goals I wish I could have back” department, Fleury pulled off a similar trick and allowed a goal from behind his own net. This time, it was Lapierre who benefited from Fleury leaving a sliver of open space between his left pad and the goal post.

Both of these goals obviously are just random events that can happen to any goaltender, but it was kind of humorous to see it happen to both keepers in the same period.