NHL season launches on two continents
by Lucas Aykroyd|12 OCT 2022
To kick off the 2022/23 NHL season, Swedish New York Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad and Swiss Nashville Predators forward Nino Niederreiter lead the NHL in scoring with two and three goals respectively.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Some of the biggest stars in IIHF competition also sparkled when the 2022/23 NHL season got underway in North America. Tuesday night witnessed two hard-fought matchups on opposite coasts in the league’s biggest U.S. markets, following up on the Nashville Predators-San Jose Sharks double bill in Prague, Czechia.

It was an exciting introduction to a year that sees the world’s top league seeking to continue its bounceback from the global pandemic. Questions aplenty loom. Will the Colorado Avalanche repeat as Stanley Cup champions? Can Connor McDavid win his fifth NHL scoring title? Which club will secure the right to the first overall draft pick in 2023 and get a shot at Connor Bedard?

But, first things first.

On Tuesday, Mika Zibanejad led the way with two goals as the host New York Rangers downed the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1 at Madison Square Garden.
“Obviously, it’s nice to see the puck go in,” said Zibanejad. “But it’s a lot nicer to get that win and to get that good start. And not just the win, but the way we won today and the way we played, I thought that was a good thing for us.”

The powerhouse clubs delivered the same kind of speed and physical intensity that marked their showdown in last year’s Eastern Conference finals.

In that series, the Lightning dramatically rallied from a 2-0 series deficit. Coach Jon Cooper’s squad won four straight games versus the Rangers, getting a two-goal performance from captain Steven Stamkos in the 2-1 clincher in Game Six. However, Tampa Bay’s reign as two-time Stanley Cup champions would end as they lost the finals in six games to Colorado.

This season opener was also billed as a rematch between two of the NHL’s most athletic and technically adept goalies in Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevski and New York’s Igor Shestyorkin.

Vasilevski, 28, captured the 2019 Vezina Trophy and 2021 Conn Smythe Trophy, while Shestyorkin, 26, won his first Vezina with a stellar 2.07 GAA and 93.5 save percentage. That was the third-highest save percentage in history among goalies who played a minimum of 50 games, trailing only Boston’s Tim Thomas (93.8, 2011) and Buffalo’s Dominik Hasek (93.7, 1999).

Here, Vasilevski did his utmost to keep the Bolts in it, as shots favoured the Rangers 39-26, but Shestyorkin came away with the win.

Zibanejad scored a spectacular shorthanded goal early in the second period to draw first blood. The Swedish star’s backhand move was reminiscent of the 1-0 overtime winner he scored on Russia’s Andrei Makarov in the 2012 World Junior gold medal game in Calgary. Zibanejad, 29, also earned Worlds gold in 2018.

Stamkos evened the score with a power play one-timer near the midway mark. However, in the final stanza, Zibanejad struck back with a PP one-timer of his own. Barclay Goodrow – who got two Cup rings as a Bolts third-liner before getting traded to the Rangers – added some insurance with a nice tip with nine minutes remaining.

Next up, Mark Stone’s lightning wrister with under a minute left gave the visiting Vegas Golden Knights a 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings. The Vegas captain was the MVP of the 2019 Worlds with Canada’s silver-medal team in Bratislava.
Sweden’s William Karlsson – a gold medalist at the 2012 World Juniors and 2017 Worlds – stepped up with a goal and an assist, as did Canada’s Gabe Vilardi, a 2021 Worlds gold medalist.

These Pacific Division rivals are both looking to bounce back in 2022-23 after some tough times.

The Golden Knights marched to the 2018 Stanley Cup finals as an expansion franchise, sweeping L.A. in the first round before suffering the same fate versus Cup champion Washington. However, last year Vegas failed to crack the post-season for the first time ever.

The Kings won their first two Cups in 2012 and 2014. But since then, they have missed the playoffs five times and crashed out thrice in the first round, including a Game Seven loss to the Edmonton Oilers last year.

In Tuesday’s see-saw affair, Vegas’s Jack Eichel got off to a nice start with a goal after being limited to 34 games last season (14+11=25) due to surgery on a herniated disc. The 25-year-old former Buffalo captain, drafted second overall by the Sabres in 2015 behind McDavid, is eager to improve on his personal bests (36+42=78 in 68 games in 2019-20). More importantly, Eichel aspires to appear in the playoffs for the first time ever.

Fellow American Phil Kessel – a 2010 Olympic silver medalist and Best Forward at the 2014 Olympics – extended his active NHL ironman streak to 983 games in his Knights debut. At 35, the two-time Stanley Cup champion is closing in on the all-time leader, defenceman Keith Yandle (989 games), who just retired in September.

Previously, there were plenty of intriguing storylines on 7 and 8 October in Prague under the banner of the NHL Global Series. It’s the ninth season that the NHL has played official games in Europe. Nino Niederreiter was the offensive leader as Nashville won back-to-back games over San Jose, 4-1 and 3-2. With three goals he currently leads the league in goals and points.
Kiefer Sherwood scored the first official goal of this season just 1:01 into his debut with the Predators. The 27-year-old journeyman previously played 87 games with the Anaheim and Colorado organizations and was named an AHL Second Team All-Star with the Colorado Eagles in 2021/22.

At the O2 Arena, the main venue of the 2004 and 2015 IIHF World Championships, the biggest ovation went to Tomas Hertl. The Prague-born Sharks forward knotted the score at 8:36, roofing the puck in close past Predators starter Juuse Saros.

“It was a little crazy, but it was just a special moment, to score in front of my whole family and a lot of friends that probably used to see me when I was playing in Prague,” Hertl said.

Hertl, 28, helped the Czechs win Worlds bronze this year in Tampere for the first time since their last medal, 2012’s bronze in Helsinki. He’s also starting off an eight-year contract extension worth $65.1 million that could keep him in the Bay Area through 2029-30.

However, Niederreiter had the last laugh as the Swiss veteran tallied the winner in his first game in a Preds jersey. The two-time Worlds silver medalist, 30, is forever a World Junior legend for his two-goal outing in 2010’s 3-2 quarterfinal win over Russia in overtime.

“To be honest, this trip has been very easy for all the new guys,” Niederreiter said. “We glued together very well. They’re very welcoming, so I think it’s a big reason why we clicked on the ice.”
“El Nino” doubled his pleasure by scoring twice in Nashville’s 3-2 win the following night. Goalie Kevin Lankinen, who led Finland to the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold medal in Prague, made 31 saves for his first regular-season Preds win after leaving the Chicago organization this summer.

On 4 and 5 November, the Avalanche will face the Columbus Blue Jackets in Tampere to wrap up the Global Series. Finnish fans should be thrilled to see Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen and Columbus’s Patrik Laine in action.

This European leg earlier included a pair of exhibition games – dubbed the NHL Global Series Challenge – with Swiss and German pro clubs hosting the NHLers.

On 3 October, Nashville edged SC Bern 4-3 at PostFinance Arena, which co-hosted the 2009 Worlds with Kloten. The highlight for Bern fans was seeing local boy and 2020 Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi shine. The Nashville captain stepped up with two goals.

Meanwhile, on 4 October, Giovanne Fiore opened the scoring for Eisbaren Berlin just past the midway point, but San Jose rallied for a 3-1 victory in the German capital. Steven Lorentz tipped home Erik Karlsson’s shot for the second-period winner.

NHL fans have a lot of exciting hockey in store between now and the next Stanley Cup finals, as do IIHF aficionados. Which NHLers will strut their stuff at the 2023 World Juniors in Halifax and Moncton and the 2023 Worlds in Tampere and Riga? Stay tuned.