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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 10/09/2011

The Good Ol’ Hockey Game: Five things to watch this season

Editor’s note: Welcome to a new feature that will appear about every other Sunday on Page 2 of the paper. In the future, this column on all things NHL will appear online every other Thursday, so keep an eye out.

On the fence about buying that expensive cable package that lets you watch 40 out-of-town NHL games a week? I was . . . until I realized how many subplots there are to follow this winter. Here are the five story lines I’ll be watching:

Winnipeg


(Marianne Helm - GETTY IMAGES)
The Jets might stink this season, but I’m not sure anyone in “The Peg” is going to care. They’ve got NHL hockey back.

They’re sold out and the attractive, redesigned jerseys are selling like Honey Dip Timbits. But how long do the Jets have to get things turned around before the novelty wears off?

Remember, this is a franchise that has played exactly four postseason games in 12 seasons, has Ondrej Pavelec as its starting goaltender and will count on Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane and former Capital Eric Fehr, among others, to carry an offense that ranked 20th in goals per game last season (2.66).

The Jets open Sunday afternoon at home against Montreal.

Avalanche

The most-watched team by fans in Washington — other than the Capitals, that is — could end up being Colorado.

And not just because they’re interested in how former Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov fares. It’s because of the first- and second-round draft picks Washington received in compensation. If the Avs struggle — they finished 14th in the Western Conference last season — the Capitals could find themselves in the draft lottery, no matter where they finish.

Varlamov, by the way, posted a 1-2-0 record with a 3.03 goals against average and a .871 save percentage in the preseason.

Brendan Shanahan

The season is only a couple of days old, but the NHL’s new director of player safety already is squarely in the crosshairs.

With the league hoping to crack down on hits to the head and checks from behind, Shanahan sent a strong message in the preseason, suspending nine players for a total of 31 regular season games and $701, 682.56. Eight of the suspensions were for hits from behind and hits to the head.

The question on everyone’s mind, though, is how the eight time all-star will handle A) suspensions in the regular season and playoffs and B) the league’s star players. Actually, I can think of one former two-time MVP (and repeat offender) who might want to be a little more cautious when lining up opponents for one of his trademark hits.

Flyers

While the Capitals have the potential to be the juiciest story in the Eastern Conference, they might be forced to share the spotlight with Philadelphia.

General Manager Paul Holmgren blew up his team, shipping out former stalwarts Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and adding eight new players, including goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Veteran Chris Pronger now wears the “C’” and former Capital Jaromir Jagr has returned to the NHL after a three-year stint in Russia.

There’s no middle ground when it comes to opinions about Holmgren’s expensive experiment: You either believe it’s going to end Philly’s 36-year title drought or you believe it’s going to explode in spectacular fashion.

I’m leaning more toward the latter.

Penguins

Like most native Washingtonians who follow hockey, I’ve got an unhealthy obsession with the Penguins.

So, while daydreaming about them the other day, I came to a frightening realization: There’s a pretty good chance the Eastern Conference championship might go through Steel Town, despite the uncertainty surrounding Sidney Crosby.

Crosby, who has been out since Jan. 5 with a concussion, hasn’t been cleared for contact, but he’s practicing and traveling with the team on its season-opening road trip.

Without Crosby, the Penguins boast two of the best centers in the game in Evgeni Malkin, back from reconstructive knee injury, and Jordan Staal, who’s completely healthy after missing the first 40 games of last season with foot and hand injuries. Last season, the Penguins finished with the second-most wins (49) despite the fact that Crosby, Malkin and Staal skated in exactly one game together.

Sorry to ruin your Sunday.

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 10/09/2011

 
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