NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Thursday. In the first game, the New York Rangers host the Nashville Predators at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here.
The NHL season will begin at different ends of the spectrum for both the Rangers and the visiting Predators.
New York enters the season after tearing down parts of the organization over the second half of this past season. They finished last in the Metropolitan Division and began the fire sale while also subsequently firing head coach Alain Vigneault.
They return this season with Dan Quinn behind the bench, youth aplenty and a bevy of question marks often attached to a team that was forced into a rebuild.
The one constant for the Rangers will be in goal, where Henrik Lundqvist gets set to begin his 14th season with the Blueshirts. Lundqvist is coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro but remains the linchpin in the Rangers chances of winning games this season.
“I’ve been reflecting this summer and over the last few days and what I come back to is that I am consistently most successful when I’m confident in my game plan and stick with it,” Lundqvist said. “For me, it’s about getting back to my base and not changing too much because of what’s going on in front of me. I can’t tell you exactly why I’ve allowed those early goals, but if I face a big scoring chance right at the start, then I have to make that save. The group has to be ready, and that goes for me, too.”
On the other side of the center line will stand the Nashville Predators, fresh off a Game 7 defeat in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Expectations last season for the Preds were much loftier than their early-round exit dictated, but the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season enters this year as one of the best in the NHL once again.
They re-signed Ryan Ellis long-term to ensure their vaunted top-four on the back end remained the envy of the NHL and added Dan Hamhuis to provide further depth on the third pairing.
The Predators should be a force to be reckoned with once again this season, one confident enough in their offense — with the likes of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson — that they felt they could afford to send highly-touted prospect Eeli Toilvanen down to the American Hockey League.
They also boast the Vezina winner from last season in Pekka Rinne, who will be looking to bounce back from a poor playoff performance where his save percentage dipped from .927 in the regular season to an abysmal .904 in the postseason.
On paper, the matchup looks poor for New York, but consider that the Rangers have won eight of their last 12 meetings with the Preds. Counterpoint: Nashville was the best road team in the NHL last season with a 25-9-7 record.
Nashville will be without forward Austin Watson, who was suspended 27 games by the NHL for “unacceptable off-ice conduct” after pleading no contest in a domestic assault incident.
In the late game, the Vegas Golden Knights will host the Philadelphia Flyers at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here.
Can the Vegas magic continue?
That was one hell of an inaugural season for the Golden Knights, who reinvented what an expansion franchise can achieve after winning 51 games and reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
And those still thinking all that was a fluke can be reminded that Vegas only got better in the offseason, re-signing 43-goal man William Karlsson, and adding stars in Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny.
A second-straight run at the Cup doesn’t feel like a pipe dream for these Golden Knights. There’s a good chance they could repeat their same success as last season, and even eclipse it if things fall into place.
The Golden Knights boast one of the best lines in the NHL with Jonathan Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith and can now watch Pacioretty and Stastny work together on the second line.
“If you need a goal, they’re on the ice,” Vegas general manager George McPhee said of his second line additions. “If you’reprotecting a lead, they’re on the ice. They can play power play, they can kill penalties, so there’s a lot of utility.”
Vegas will also be counting on Marc-Andre Fleury to once again shoulder the load after putting up career numbers last season. Fleury battled injury during the regular season before putting on a goaltending clinic in the first three rounds of the playoffs. His numbers tailed off against the Washington Capitals, who pipped Vegas to the Cup in five games.
In Philly, Gritty has been the talk of the town after the googly-eyed mascot made his debut a couple weeks ago.
The move to introduce the brilliant mascot wasn’t made to mask the Flyers’ chances this season. They made the playoffs last season — despite losing 10 straight at one point — and added James van Riemsdyk over the summer to help solidify their offense.
Claude Giroux enjoyed a resurgence playing out on the wing, amassing a career-high 102 points and 34 goals. The move also helped Sean Couturier, who was given an elite winger and that helped turn his season into a career year also, finishing with 31 goals.
Philly’s biggest question — as it has been for years — comes in the crease. They have the offensive capabilities with Giroux, Couturier, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek, and a solid backend, but need Brian Elliott and/or Michal Neuvirth to stand on their head this year. The Flyers claimed Calvin Pickard of waivers earlier this week as insurance.
The Flyers will be looking to 2017 second-overall pick Nolan Patrick to take the next step after recording 30 points in his rookie season.
The tools are there for Philly to improve on last season’s showing.
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck