For many hockey fans in North America, the season reached a peak Sept. 13, when Team Canada scored its dramatic overtime victory over the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the Canada Cup.
If the National Hockey League's 68th season, which opens Thursday, is to provide anything more than an anticlimax, it must present a new look in the upper echelons. A third straight Stanley Cup final between the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders is hardly a prescription for exciting the jaded.
The teams with the potential to alter the script are the Washington Capitals and the Calgary Flames. Each has the talent, the coaching and the work ethic necessary to oust the reigning kings of East and West.
The Capitals have the better chance to accomplish the improbable, because they boast in Rod Langway the best defenseman and team leader in hockey. The Flames have nobody to compare with Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky.
The pick here is Edmonton over Washington in a five-game final. But should either Langway or Gretzky suffer a disabling injury, all bets are off.
Here is a look at the 21 teams, with predicted order of divisional finish and 1983-84 point totals: PATRICK DIVISION Washington Capitals (101)
The NHL's youngest team of a year ago has matured into a potent contender. New York Islanders (104)
Without the motivation of keeping that remarkable Stanley Cup string alive, after four championships, the Islanders figure to suffer an emotional slide. They also are likely to slip defensively, with Denis Potvin, Ken Morrow and Dave Langevin questionable because of illness and injury. There are few problems on offense, however.
Pat Lafontaine and Pat Flatley will be available for a full season, Mike Bossy is aiming for eighth straight 50-goal campaign, and Bryan Trottier and John Tonelli are coming off top Canada Cup performances. Coach Al Arbour is prepared to alternate goalies Bill Smith, Roland Melanson and Kelly Hrudey despite disruptions it caused last year. New York Rangers (93)
The Rangers are searching for consistency, after a sea-son of ups and downs. Defenseman James Patrick will be around for the full season; otherwise, the only newcomers figure to be Swedish winger Tomas Sandstrom and Finnish defenseman Simo Saarinen. It remains to be seen whether the shift of defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen to a forward spot will continue into the regular season. Some feel the speedy Finn generates more offense from the backline. The dispatch of Steve Weeks to Hartford puts the goaltending pressure solidly on Glen Hanlon. Philadelphia Flyers (98)
While Bob Clarke learns the general manager's functions, the Flyers will miss his leadership on the ice. The loss of Bill Barber because of the need to rebuild a damaged knee is another minus. Mike Keenan makes his NHL coaching debut in a tough division but with minimal pressure. Most critics will be satisfied if the Flyers win just one playoff game, something they have not accomplished over the past two seasons. Although Tim Kerr, Brian Propp and Dave Poulin figure to produce a bundle of goals, Philadelphia's defense is highly suspect. Pittsburgh Penguins (38)
New Coach Bob Berry has taken a realistic approach, noting that "we could improve 50 points and still not be good enough to make the playoffs." First-round draft picks Mario Lemieux, Doug Bodger and Roger Belanger, and Finnish Olympians Arto Javanainen and Petteri Lehto at least offer relief from the tired, go-through-the-motions routine of the veterans of recent years. New Jersey Devils (41)
Doug Carpenter takes over as coach, assisted by Lou Vairo, and Carpenter also knows what is ahead, saying, "I am coming into a tough situation, no question about it." Youngsters Kirk Muller, Pat Verbeek and Joe Cirella will get plenty of experience and the veteran line of Mel Bridgman, Rich Preston and Tim Higgins will hold its own some nights. Aging goalies Chico Resch (36) and Ron Low (34) must keep things respectable. ADAMS DIVISION Buffalo Sabres (103)
The Sabres stumbled in late March to yield first place to Boston by a point, then were swept by Quebec in the playoffs. Still, for a transition year, Buffalo did very well. Goalie Tom Barrasso and defenseman Mike Ramsey are among the NHL's best and Phil Housley guides a quick-strike offense. Centers John Tucker and Adam Creighton, junior stars of a year ago, should break into the lineup. Boston Bruins (104)
Center Ken Linseman and Swedish defenseman Mats Thelin give the Bruins a new look and Terry O'Reilly's return from the injury list should provide a spark. Ray Bourque is one of the league's best defensemen. But there is a virtual absence of capable left wings and the ankle injury goalie Pete Peeters incurred during the Canada Cup could hurt. Montreal Canadiens (75)
With Rick Wamsley and Richard Sevigny gone, much depends on whether goalie Steve Penney can maintain his playoff form over a full season. The Canadiens reached the Prince of Wales final largely on emotion, but it is questionable how long that will continue. The presence of Rick Green and Chris Chelios from the start no doubt will help a somewhat shaky defense. Big things are expected of Czech draftee Petr Svoboda, but perhaps not just yet. Quebec Nordiques (94)
If everything is peachy in Montreal for a change, the same is not true of Quebec. Aggressive center Dale Hunter, the subject of trade rumors all summer, is playing out his option. Peter Stastny, invisible during the Canada Cup, displayed his frustration by bumping a linesman in an exhibition game and will sit out the first three games of the season under suspension. Still, the Nordiques have considerable talent, led by 56-goal scorer Michel Goulet. Hartford Whalers (66)
For once, the Whalers will not be out of playoff contention by November. They are an improving club and doubtless would be a contender in the Norris Division. Unfortunately, they compete in the toughest group in the NHL. That means they most likely will finish last once more. The team lacks overall quickness and must depend on Jack Evans' disciplined system. NORRIS DIVISION Chicago Black Hawks (68)
The Hawks lost 272 man games to injuries last year and the crippled included stars Doug Wilson, Al Secord and Darryl Sutter. Additionally, Tom Lysiak's 20-game suspension proved extremely divisive. The departure of Tony Esposito solves another morale problem. Olympian Ed Olczyk will provide strength up front. Minnesota North Stars (88)
As usual, Minnesota is potent on paper, but most of its talented players prefer offense to defense. The North Stars yielded 344 goals last season. Defenseman Harold Snepsts was obtained from Vancouver and Czech winger Jiri Poner figures to make the club. Detroit Red Wings (69)
The addition of two Czechs, defenseman Milan Chalupa and left wing Frantisek Cernik, should help the Red Wings continue their improvement of a season ago, when they made the playoffs for the first time since 1978. St. Louis Blues (71)
The Blues took Minnesota to seven games in the Norris final in April, which merely shows the overall weakness of the division. St. Louis scored only 293 goals and does not figure to add much offense with free agents Denis Cyr and Kevin LaVallee. Goalie Mike Liut is the key. Toronto Maple Leafs (61)
New Coach Dan Maloney figures to extract more effort from the team, but there just isn't much talent beyond Rick Vaive, John Anderson, Dan Daoust and goalie Allan Bester. Olympian Al Iafrate will get a shot on defense. SMYTHE DIVISION Edmonton Oilers (119)
Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Glenn Anderson give the Oilers offensive power unmatched in NHL history. If goalie Grant Fuhr's knee is sound, he will make up for the defensive shortcomings. Calgary Flames (82)
Hakan Loob and Kent Nilsson were outstanding in leading Sweden to the Canada Cup final. Bob Johnson confirmed his coaching ability by guiding Team USA to second place in the round-robin phase. Paul Reinhart, one of the NHL's top defenders, has recovered from a back injury that kept him out of 53 games last season. Biggest plus is confidence gained from taking the Oilers to the playoff limit. Vancouver Canucks (73)
Patrik Sundstrom fractured a wrist in the Canada Cup final and Darcy Rota still is recuperating from neck surgery, so Vancouver will be in trouble from the start. New Coach Bill LaForge has been successful at the junior level and promises more offense from one of the NHL's dullest teams. Winnipeg Jets (73)
Dale Hawerchuk, the club's new captain, should be ready to assume a leadership role after three difficult seasons. Perry Turnbull should add scoring punch, but the Jets may be sorry they traded tough Lucien DeBlois to get him. This is not a physical hockey club, somewhat surprising considering General Manager John Ferguson's background. Los Angeles Kings (59)
For mismanagement, the Kings qualify as Toronto West. Pat Quinn moves in as coach with little to look forward to except a lot of travel. Top draft pick Craig Redmond will help the defense, which needs a lot after yielding 376 goals a year ago.