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Ice Breakers: Bruins-Coyotes, Opening Weekend in Prague

At long last, the Bruins return to the rink this weekend for a pair of games to kick off the regular season against last year’s biggest surprise team, the Phoenix Coyotes. What rink? The O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic. The games are a part of the NHL’s European Premiere series. Elsewhere in Europe, the Carolina Hurricanes are taking on the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, and Columbus is going against San Jose in Stockholm, Sweden.

For Boston, they aim to erase the sour taste left in their fans’ mouths after a brutal playoff loss to Philadelphia, a series that the B’s blew a 3-0 series lead in, not to mention a 3-0 game lead in the deciding Game 7. But enough about that… it’s time to turn the page and look ahead to a highly anticipated 2010-11 season.

Phoenix exited the playoffs with a Game 7 loss even earlier than the Bruins did, but no one expected the Coyotes to even sniff a playoff spot last year, so just getting there was enough for their futile fan base. The ‘Yotes tallied 107 points in the standings last season, good for the fourth seed in the Western Conference. They were one of only four teams in the NHL to win 50 or more games last year.

Without further ado, let’s kick this hockey doubleheader preview into high gear with some pre-game news and notes, to get you ready for a weekend filled with matinee hockey from across the pond. It’s the debut of the second season of “Ice Breakers,”… (standing ovation unnecessary, but much appreciated).

  • Head coach Claude Julien has been tinkering with his forward lines and defensive pairings for the entire preseason, which makes it difficult to predict who will play with who when the puck drops on the regular season Saturday at high noon. The one forward line that has seemed to steadily stick together is that of Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and the newly acquired Nathan Horton. Beyond that trio, also look for Patrice Bergeron, with the ink still drying on a new three-year contract extension signed Friday, to center the second line between Mark Recchi and likely Blake Wheeler. The highly touted rookie Tyler Seguin should see third line center duty, but his wingers are tough to predict, as he’s been working with Daniel Paille, Michael Ryder, and fellow rookie Jordan Caron. The team’s fourth line will be made up of three of the following four forwards: Gregory Campbell, Brad Marchand, Shawn Thornton, and Brian McGrattan. On defense, you’ll likely see the captain, Zdeno Chara on the top pairing with Johnny Boychuk, followed by Mark Stuart and Andrew Ference, then Dennis Seidenberg and Matt Hunwick. Andy McQuaid projects to be the healthy scratch on the blue line.
  • In these two teams’ only meeting last season, Phoenix dropped the B’s 4-1 out in the Arizona desert, with Mark Stuart scoring the only goal for Boston in the game. Phoenix’s Shane Doan added three assists on the night for the Coyotes.
  • Doan was one of the team’s scoring leaders last season, putting in 18 goals and adding 37 assists. Wojtek Wolski was the team’s overall scoring leader (23G, 42A), but he split his year between Colorado and Phoenix. Also among the team’s scoring leaders, the departed Matthew Lombardi (19G, 34A), forwards Lee Stempniak (28G, 20A) and Radim Vrbata (24G, 19A), and young defenseman Keith Yandle (12G, 29A).
  • In an effort to boost the team’s scoring even further, Phoenix added former Carolina Hurricane Ray Whitney during the off-season. The veteran winger, who signed a multi-year deal with the Coyotes as one of the most coveted free agents over the summer, put together a very solid year for Carolina last season, netting 21 goals and 37 helpers on the year.
  • Phoenix’s special teams units very much mirrored that of Boston’s last season, with the power play struggling for much of the year, but the penalty killers leading the way for both squads. Phoenix ranked 28th in the league last season on the man-advantage, at 14.6% (Boston was 23rd at 16.6%), while boasting the league’s sixth best penalty kill, at 84.5% (Boston was 3rd at 86.4%).
  • Tough to tell this early who we’ll see in goal for each team, but my money’s on Ilya Bryzgalov for Phoenix. Bryzgalov appeared in all but 13 of Phoenix’s 82 games last season, posting a 42-20-6 record with a 2.29GAA and .920 save percentage, stats that led to a Vezina nomination for the Russian netminder. For Boston, look for Tuukka Rask to get his first opening game start of his career. That being said, don’t be surprised if it’s Thomas who you see in goal for game two of the back-to-back. I see coach Claude Julien trying to keep the goaltender workload even for the first month or two until the hot hand wins out, whoever that may be.
  • Speaking of Julien and coaches, this two-game series features the league’s last two Jack Adams Trophy award winners. Julien won the award following the 2008-09 season, and Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett was given the nod after his first year in the desert last season.
  • Four native Czechs will be able to play in front of their countrymen in this series. David Krejci, born in Sternberk, CZE, is the only Bruin with Czech blood, while Phoenix has a trio of Czechs on their roster, including Radim Vrbata (born in Mlada Boleslav), Petr Prucha (born in Chrudim), and Martin Hanzal (born in Pisek).
  • The only Coyote will local ties to Massachusetts is defenseman Keith Yandle. Yandle, who enters his fourth year with Phoenix, grew up in the Boston area and played his high school hockey at Cushing Academy out in Ashburnham, alongside his close friend Chris Bourque, son of former Bruin defenseman, Ray Bourque. Yandle has said he idolized the elder Bourque as a kid growing up a Bruins fan, and he has tried to model his game as an offensive defenseman after the Bruins Hall of Famer.
  • Last but certainly not least, the Bruins are sponsoring two viewing parties for fans to get together and watch the B’s open the season overseas. Saturday, the Bruins Ice Girls, along with Blades, the team mascot, will be at The Fours on Canal St., just off Causeway, beginning at 11:00am. On Sunday, head across town to Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar & Grill on Boylston St. near Fenway Park. Doors open on Sunday at 9:30am for the 10am puck drop.

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