Early results show that the league is as wide open as ever in terms of predicting a winner on a nightly basis. Plus, the influx of young players meant a lot of firsts. Many showed in their first games that their goals and points may not be few and far between.
Here are four things I took away from the opening of the 2010-11 campaign:
1. The Edmonton Oilers are going to be a tough foe this season. Yes, they are youthful at an average age of 25, but veteran goaltender Nik Khabibulin,37, is the equalizer. That was the idea before he hurt his back a year ago and had season-ending surgery. If he plays up to his career standard, he alone can cover some of the errors made by the kids around him and in doing so, give his emerging team some confidence. This past weekend, Khabibulin played brilliantly in winning two games. With Tom Renney behind the bench -- he's such a good technical teacher -- the Oilers will be fun to watch and not nearly as much fun to play against.
2. In New York, the Rangers won their opener on the strength of rookie Derek Stepan's hat trick against Buffalo. Stepan was drafted 51st overall by New York in 2008, but his stock has risen considerably over the past 24 months as he led all players in scoring at the World Junior Championships and tied for the NCAA scoring lead -- with the most assists in the country -- while skating for the Wisconsin Badgers. Those benchmarks hastened his exit from college after just two seasons and he continued to impress through his first NHL training camp. Stepan's game is well suited for the pros in that he has poise with the puck, sees the ice well, and reads the play with maturity beyond his years. It all adds up to the kind of skills that will make him a long-running hit on Broadway and not just a short time sensation.
3. The Bruins opened in the Czech Republic with an impressive performance by Nathan Horton. Acquired this summer form the Florida Panthers, Horton is a big body goal scorer who evokes Bruins' players of the past. He scored three times in Boston's split with the Phoenix Coyotes and his production should remain a regular occurrence. Playing on a strong team that has depth at center will get Horton regular looks in favorable spots all season long. He averaged 25 goals a season in Florida where he was one of only a couple of offensive options and too young for top billing. Not surprisingly, Horton's time as a Panther netted mixed results and reviews. With the Bruins, he will finally deliver on his longstanding promise of having the game to become a premier power forward in the NHL.
4. In watching the Washington Capitals, we can surmise exactly what we thought about this team a week ago: they are as good as they are involved. That is to say, in winning their home-opener on Saturday, the Caps looked dynamic, explosive and emotionally charged while routing the New Jersey Devils, 7-2. Twenty-four hours earlier, the Caps played an uninspired and lackluster game in Atlanta. With their ultimate judgment not coming until the playoffs, the nightly readiness challenge will be Washington's to bear all season long.
In Atlanta, maybe we will give the Capitals a pass, as they had to endure one of the most unsettling sights you can ever imagine in a hockey rink. Thrashers' goaltender Ondrej Pavelec fainted just 2:25 into the contest and lay prone for over 15 minutes. He sustained a concussion from hitting his head on the ice after falling, but he is now out of the hospital and will undergo further testing to see if there is a genetic reason for the fainting spell. (So far, no signs of trouble have been found in his brain or heart.) He'll remain out due to the concussion as well, but in the bigger context, Pavelec's condition appears much better now than it was on Friday night as a host of doctors and paramedics attended to him in front of over 16,000 eerily quiet hockey fans.
After Pavelec left the ice on a stretcher, the Capitals played a shaky game. They scored first, just a minute after play finally resumed. Yet, they never had much sustained pressure. Sure, the Thrashers played a strong game in winning 4-2, but the Capitals looked flat -- interested only sporadically -- almost as if showing up would be enough to get the job done. It wasn't and they dialed it up the next night, which they certainly can do. But how consistently will they do it every night this season?