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NHL players look to put lockout behind them, anxious to get season started

Montreal Canadiens Tomas Plekanec gets a few pointers from assistant coach Gerard Gallant during their training camp Wednesday, January 16, 2013 in Brossard, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

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Montreal Canadiens Tomas Plekanec gets a few pointers from assistant coach Gerard Gallant during their training camp Wednesday, January 16, 2013 in Brossard, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Whether the nearly four month lockout was worth it or not, the National Hockey League and its players are set to leave the lawyers behind and get back on the ice.

The regular season of 82 games per team that was supposed to start in October has been slashed to a 48-game sprint over only 99 days.

It starts with 13 games on Saturday, including the Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators at Winnipeg Jets, Anaheim Ducks at Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers.

The lockout ended last weekend with the league winning key concessions on salaries and lengths of contracts and the players association doing well to limit the damage and get a better pension deal.

"When you look back at the whole process, this is the best deal we could have got," said Montreal Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges. "It's unfortunate it took as long as it did to get here, but that's the way negotiations go.

"We're playing hockey. That's all that matters."

They'll be playing at a hectic pace to get games in before the regular season ends on April 27. The playoffs start three days later and, if the Stanley Cup final goes seven games, will end on June 28. The draft in Newark, N.J. is on June 30.

It will be a help that all games are inside the conferences, except perhaps for the Jets, the former Atlanta Thrashers who are stuck in the Southeast Division for at least one more season.

Injuries, especially pulled groins, will be a concern with training camps limited to six days with no pre-season contests. While about 200 players joined teams in Europe during the lockout, most stayed home to skate in small groups at city rinks and try to stay in shape in the gym.

New coaches Bob Hartley in Calgary, Ralph Krueger in Edmonton, Michel Therrien in Montreal and Adam Oates in Washington have had little time to implement systems and get to know their players.

"It's good and bad," added Gorges. "We want to play.

"We want to be out there in games. That's what's good about a short camp. You don't have to wait too long. The flip side is you'd like a little more time to get prepared, but that's not the circumstance."

As play resumes, the Los Angeles Kings will finally get to raise their first Stanley Cup banner as they play host to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Kings grabbed the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot and rode it to an unexpected Cup last season.

The last time a lockout shortened the season to 48 games in 1994-95, it was the New York Rangers who had to wait for their banner ceremony. The 2004-05 lockout erased the entire season, which left an extended delay for the 2003-04 champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Kings have made few personnel changes and will contend again in the Western Conference.

The Rangers, who added scoring star Rick Nash in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets, seem to be a consensus choice as favourite in the East.

Vancouver and Ottawa were the only Canadian-based clubs to reach the playoffs last season and it will be battle to add to that total this time around.

The Canucks, who lost a Stanley Cup final to the Boston Bruins two seasons ago, are still a force with twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin but injuries on their second line and the on-going distraction of trade talks about goalie Roberto Luongo will challenge them.

The Oilers, who open Sunday at Vancouver, will have a shot if their clutch of high draft picks chooses this year to emerge as a contender. Adding skilled rookies Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz to Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is bound to produce a winner at some point.

It will also be a Sunday start at home for the Calgary Flames against the aging San Jose Sharks. Calgary has added a top power play-point man in Dennis Wideman along with former Detroit winger Jiri Hudler. They also brought in former KHL scoring leader Roman Cervenka.

Veteran Olli Jokinen should get first-line ice time with the Jets.

The Leafs bring new winger James van Riemsdyk and their own goaltending question, which centres around whether they will be the club that trades for Luongo. It will be the debut of general manager Dave Nonis, who replaced the abruptly fired Brian Burke this week.

The Canadiens have a whole new management team with GM Marc Bergevin, as well as Therrien and new assistant coaches. The effect of gritty new comers Brandon Prust, ex-Leaf Colby Armstrong and Francis Bouillon will be tested.

Opening night also has Sidney Crosby, with his concussion woes hopefully in the past, teaming up with Evgeni Malkin in an all-Pennsylvania battle with the Flyers.

What remains to be seen is how many of the young players in camps will be with the big clubs, including third-overall pick Alex Galchenyuk in Montreal and fifth pick Morgan Rielly in Toronto, not to mention Edmonton's first-overall pick Yakupov.

There may also be Sven Baertschi in Calgary, Mark Scheifele in Winnipeg, Jonathan Huberdeau in Florida and Mikhail Grigorenko in Buffalo.

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