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Classic Habs-Leafs, Oilers-Flames matchups kick off 2010-11 NHL season

Toronto Maple Leafs Mikhail Grabovski is checked into the boards by Montreal Canadiens' Paul Mara during second period NHL hockey action on December 1, 2009 in Montreal. A new NHL season begins Thursday with a pair of classic Canadian matchups.The Montreal Canadiens face the Maple Leafs in Toronto, while the Battle of Alberta resumes with the Calgary Flames visiting the Edmonton Oilers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

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Toronto Maple Leafs Mikhail Grabovski is checked into the boards by Montreal Canadiens' Paul Mara during second period NHL hockey action on December 1, 2009 in Montreal. A new NHL season begins Thursday with a pair of classic Canadian matchups.The Montreal Canadiens face the Maple Leafs in Toronto, while the Battle of Alberta resumes with the Calgary Flames visiting the Edmonton Oilers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

A new NHL season begins Thursday with a pair of classic Canadian matchups.

The Montreal Canadiens, without some key veterans and with goalie Carey Price doubtful because of the flu, face the Maple Leafs in Toronto (CBC, 7 p.m. ET), while the Battle of Alberta resumes with the Calgary Flames visiting the Edmonton Oilers (CBC, 10 p.m. ET).

There is also a game from Helsinki, as the Carolina Hurricanes meet the Minnesota Wild (TSN, noon ET). It's one of six games that will be played in Europe at the start of the season.

The Canadiens left their pre-season retreat in Clermont, Que., on Wednesday knowing they will be missing some key pieces when they begin the 82-game schedule against their oldest rivals.

Michael Cammalleri, a Toronto-area native who is one of their top scoring wingers, will miss the opener due to a one-game suspension for a slash on Islanders rookie Nino Niederreiter during a pre-season game Saturday in Quebec City.

The Habs are also without top defenceman Andrei Markov, who is expected to return later this month from knee surgery. Veteran rearguard Roman Hamrlik will also sit out with a sore knee that kept him out of all seven pre-season games.

Then Price came down with the flu, raising the possibility that backup netminder Alex Auld will get the start. Coach Jacques Martin said a decision will be made Thursday on whether Price can play.

''I'm always ready, so we'll see what happens,'' said Auld.

Absent players aside, Martin said he is optimistic about a team that came together in the playoffs and marched to the Eastern Conference final before bowing out to Philadelphia.

''We're confident,'' he said. ''Some players have made progress, there's a strong leadership group in place, and we've added a new dimension in (Jeff) Halpern and (Dustin) Boyd. We feel we're ready for the challenge.''

Both teams have new captains. Right-winger Brian Gionta will wear the 'C' for Montreal and defenceman Dion Phaneuf will handle the duties for Toronto.

Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin have been named alternate captains by Leafs coach Ron Wilson. That means that arguably Toronto's best defenceman—Tomas Kaberle—will no longer wear an A, a sign the team's leadership has shifted.

Also on display will be Toronto's new power play, which will have Phaneuf going to the front of the net at times instead of just wiring his heavy shot from the point.

The Leafs finished last in the conference last season and had one of the league's worst power plays. Toronto scored on just 13.97 per cent of its chances with the man advantage.

It will also be the first Leafs game for sniper Kris Versteeg, who is fresh off winning a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks.

There is a buzz in Edmonton as well over their trio of talented rookies, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, who will get their first taste of real NHL action.

The Oilers were last in the Western Conference last season, which landed them Hall, a former Windsor Spitfires star, with the first overall draft pick. He's now part of an impressive group of youngsters playing key roles on the team, along with 21-year-old Sam Gagner and 23-year-old Andrew Cogliano.

Edmonton also has a new captain in Shawn Horcoff and a new coach in Tom Renney.

The Flames have summer acquisitions Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay back for second stints with the club on the top line with Jarome Iginla, their captain since 2003.

Calgary also starts the season undermanned with centres Daymond Langkow, Matt Stajan and Ryan Stone out with injuries. Forwards David Moss and Ales Kotalik are also hurt.

Chicago will open its season in Colorado. The Blackhawks have a load of new faces as they begin their quest to become the first repeat Cup winners since the Detroit Red Wings won their second straight championship in 1998.

Seriously above the US$59.4-million salary cap, the Blackhawks were forced to dump a load of players in the off-season, including Versteeg, forward-defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, goalie Antti Niemi, Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager.

''Now we're at the point where it's all behind us: The salary cap, the trades and this and that,'' said captain Jonathan Toews. ''We're ready to move forward with the guys we have.''

The Flyers are also in action against Pennsylvania rival Pittsburgh, the 2009 Cup champions.

The Ottawa Senators begin the season at home against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night (Rogers Sportsnet East, 7:30 p.m. ET), while the Vancouver Canucks welcome the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night (CBC, 10 p.m. ET).

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