- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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The good folks at ESPN.com have given me the company credit card and a simple mission: buy a pair of tickets to 10 must-see games on the new schedule. Well, actually, they didn't give me the company credit card, but they did ask me to pick 10 games I'd want to see this season.
There were some games from the 1,230-game schedule, like the first NHL meeting between Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin (Nov. 22, Caps at Pens), that I couldn't fit onto my list.
I also didn't pick two games from the same night. That kept me from selecting Wayne Gretzky's coaching debut, which coincides with Todd Bertuzzi's return (Oct. 5, Coyotes at Canucks). Fortunately, there are other, more interesting nights to see The Great One behind the bench and Big Bert on the ice.
In chronological order, here are my top 10 games to watch for the upcoming season:
Oct. 5: Penguins at Devils
After all the hype and hoopla, Sidney Crosby is here. Sid the Kid makes his NHL debut against the Atlantic Division-rival Devils in New Jersey. Like the old song says, this could be the start of something big. Crosby is the real deal. I expect him to be an impact player in his rookie season. Twenty years from now (if I'm still kicking), I want to be able to say I saw Crosby's first game. I still can't believe that OLN would choose to televise Rangers-Flyers over Crosby's debut.
Oct. 18: Coyotes at Oilers
What better place to catch up with The Great One? Gretzky makes his first trip to Edmonton as a coach on a very emotional night. The Oilers are raising Paul Coffey's No. 7 to the rafters before the game. The Oilers will bring back all their great players, including Mark Messier, to honor Coffey. Aside from the obvious, these two clubs might be battling for one of the final playoff spots in the West. So, these two points might come in handy.
Oct. 27: Canucks at Avalanche
Bertuzzi faces the music (loud and prolonged booing) when he arrives in Denver to skate for the first time since his nasty attack on former Avs forward Steve Moore. In a scheduling oddity, the Canucks will play consecutive games in Colorado, so Bertuzzi will have to hang around town for a couple of days. It will be interesting to see if the club opts to fly out of town between games to avoid any further distractions. These two nasty rivals will be competing with the Flames for the top spot in the Northwest Division.
Nov. 20: Bruins at Rangers
Longtime Rangers star Brian Leetch never thought he'd dress in the visitor's dressing room at Madison Square Garden. Well, thanks to GM Glen Sather, Leetch will get a good look at those cramped quarters when his new club visits New York. If the Rangers don't get off to a good start to the season, then the Garden fans, who love Leetch, might have several salty messages for Mr. Sather. It should be a very interesting night.
Dec. 2: Blackhawks at Lightning
Former Tampa goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who backstopped the team's Cup drive in 2004, returns with the Hawks to pick up his Stanley Cup ring. It will be interesting to see how the fans respond to Khabibulin, who left the Lightning for more money in Chicago. Also, two months into the season, it will be a great time to check in to see how the defending champs are doing without him.
Dec. 31: Oilers at Flames
If you're looking for hockey atmosphere, I don't think it will get much better than this New Year's Eve tilt between Oilers and Flames in Calgary. The crew on the Red Mile will be in a partying mood for this chapter of the Battle of Alberta. It's going to be fun to watch each of the eight meetings between these two clubs. In particular, keep an eye on the personal battle between Flames star right wing Jarome Iginla and newly acquired Oilers defenseman Chris Pronger. The two are rumored to have some unresolved feelings concerning the lockout. If that's true, then the intensity of these games could increase to an even higher level.
Jan. 2: Senators at Thrashers
Senators winger Dany Heatley returns to Atlanta for the first time since the blockbuster August deal which sent him north of the border. Because of the circumstances, I would expect it to be a very emotional few days for Heatley. Thrashers fans were very supportive of Heatley through a very tough time. Will they remain supportive? Or, will the fans feel jilted because Heatley asked to be traded? It will also be Marian Hossa's first game against his former teammates.
Jan. 12: Oilers at Rangers
OK, I'll admit, three Oilers games are a bit much. If I could avoid it, I would do it. But what can I say? How could I stay away from Messier night at MSG? I've never been a Rangers guy, but I am a New Yorker, and this will be a big night in the Big Apple. The Rangers' staff does an excellent job of putting on these types of events. Gretzky's last game and Mike Richter Night are just two examples of their great work. Hopefully, someone will bring the Kleenex for No. 11.
March 25: Maple Leafs at Canadiens
Now for some of you, there might be more appealing games. But, if I have a choice of 10 games, then an Original Six matchup between the Leafs and Habs makes the list. And I want to see the game in Montreal, where the history is everywhere and the fans are passionate. It seems as though these two teams will be battling for a playoff spot in the East. That makes it all the more fun.
April 18: Red Wings at Predators
Who can predict which will be the most meaningful game on the final night of the regular season? Certainly, it's not me. But I think the old-guard Wings are going to get quite a challenge from the up-and-coming Preds throughout the season. Perhaps, if everything goes just right, the Central Division crown will be on the line when the two teams take the ice in April. If not, it should still be a fun game. And there's plenty to see and do in the several honky-tonk saloons around Gaylord Entertainment Center.
Loopy over which games to watch this season? E.J. Hradek's got your back with his top 10 picks.