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NHL finally set to begin, with marquee match-ups on tap for season openers

The NHL is back.

Four months after the league shut down with its third lockout in 17 years, players will finally be on the ice in real games across North America on Saturday.

A truncated, 48-games per team schedule starts with marquee match-ups like the Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens and a new chapter in the Battle of Pennsylvania as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Philadelphia Flyers.

"It is halfway through the year but it doesn't seem like it," Canadiens forward Colby Armstrong said Friday. "We're just getting started.

"The weird thing was the shortened camp and powering through everything at top speed. But we know what's on the line. We know the energy in the rink is going to be crazy. Hockey's back."

The atmosphere should be just as heated in Philadelphia, with the Flyers coming off a six-game playoff win over Pittsburgh. They were the top two scoring clubs in the 30-team league last season.

Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who hopes to have his concussion woes behind him, will be on the ice for an afternoon contest facing Claude Giroux, the Flyers' newly named captain.

"We've been waiting too long to play," Philadelphia forward Max Talbot said. "To play them is going to be a great motivation.

"It's not like it's Tuesday night in Columbus."

Other afternoon games have the Ottawa Senators at the Winnipeg Jets and a Stanley Cop banner raising in Los Angeles before the Kings play host to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Night games have the Anaheim Ducks visiting the Vancouver Canucks, the New York Rangers at Boston Bruins, the Washington Capitals visiting the New York Islanders, the Carolina Hurricanes at Florida Panthers, the Detroit Red Wings at St. Louis Blues, the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nashville Predators and the Colorado Avalanche at Minnesota Wild.

The Edmonton Oilers and No. 1 overall draft pick Nail Yakupov don't see action until they visit Vancouver on Sunday, when the Calgary Flames open at home against the San Jose Sharks.

The Kings became the first eighth-seeded team to win the championship last spring. They plan a Fan Fest at an outdoor rink before they march the first Stanley Cup in the team's 45-year history to the Staples Center for the pre-game banner ceremony.

However, star forward Anze Kopitar will miss the opener with a knee injury.

In Montreal, there is concern for Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who didn't practice after tweaking a groin injury in an intra-squad game on Thursday night. Coach Michel Therrien said his No. 1 goalie will play.

They will be without popular defenceman P.K. Subban. At the intra-squad game, the crowd of 17,000 urged the club to sign the restricted free agent by chanting Subban's name.

It will mark the NHL debut of 18-year-old forward Alex Galchenyuk, the third overall pick in the draft who was a standout in camp.

The Leafs on Friday elected to send the fifth overall pick, rearguard Morgan Rielly, back to the junior Moose Jaw Warriors as Dave Nonis, who replaced the fired Brian Burke this week, said it was impossible to evaluate him without a least seeing him in exhibition games.

But young centre Nazem Kadri cracked the Toronto lineup and will play on the third line with newcomer Leo Komarov.

The Jets will have a new sound system in place at the MTS Centre for their opener, where veteran centre Olli Jokinen will make his Winnipeg debut. Big rookie forward Mark Scheifele will also be in the lineup.

The Senators are looking to build on their eighth-place finish in the Eastern Conference with former Swedish league MVP Jakob Silfverberg skating on the top line with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek. New winger Guillaume Latendresse will play on the second trio with Kyle Turris and 40-year-old Daniel Alfredsson.

Norris Trophy defenceman Erik Karlsson is expected to play with a new partner in Marc Methot.

The Canucks open with questions on the future of goalie Roberto Luongo, although it appears Cory Schneider has taken over the starting job. So far, Luongo is still a Canuck, but the trade rumours continue to swirl.

Vancouver starts with two members of its second line, Ryan Kesler and David Booth, out with injuries, but they still have twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin and have added a rocket-launching point man in Jason Garrison.

The teams had only six days of camp with no pre-season games to prepare, so there is concern over groin pulls and other injuries to players who didn't keep in game shape by playing in Europe during the lockout.

There is also concern for how fans will react after a lockout that seemed to many like a needless squabble between millionaire players and billionaire owners. However, rinks are expected to be packed as usual for the openers.

Unlike after the last lockout that erased the entire 2004-05 season, there are no interesting new rules or crackdowns on obstruction to tantalize fans this time around, although there are discounts on tickets, merchandize and other goodies at most rinks.

In Montreal, Therrien will finally coach his 500th NHL game, including playoffs, as he returns nearly 10 years to the day since he was fired from his first stint with the Canadiens.

There wasn't much time for the team to work in a new system, but every team had the same sort of problems.

"We implemented some new things—jammed them in—but when it comes down to it, we're all professionals and when they drop the puck, we'll be ready," said Armstrong.

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