Three to see in 2008-09

It seems like just yesterday that the Detroit Red Wings were lifting their fourth Stanley Cup since 1997.

They’ll be defending it soon enough.

The NHL this week released its 2008-09 schedule, a 1,230-game slate with a new matrix which allows for more non-conference play. Each team will now play six games against division foes, four games against non-division teams in its conference, and 18 games against non-conference teams.

That means I won’t have to wait years to see the New York Rangers at the United Center.

Now, here are three games to watch in 2008-09 …

Jan. 1 – Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, Detroit Red Wings vs. Chicago Blackhawks: After the success of last season’s game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres, in which more than 71,000 jammed Ralph Wilson Stadium, the league now focuses an outdoor tilt on two Original Six teams.

Playing this game in one of Major League Baseball’s most storied parks is just an added bonus.

Sure, the Red Wings are the defending champions. Yes, they have been one of the NHL’s elite teams for more than a decade now. But, great things are expected from the Blackhawks this season with reigning Calder Trophy winner Patrick Kane and new captain Jonathan Toews, and newcomers Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet.

New Years Day. Wind off the lake. Maybe some snow. This matchup looks like it will beat last season’s.

Nov. 11 – Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Detroit Red Wings: Even though they lost in the Stanley Cup finals last season, I’m sure the Penguins expected Marian Hossa to be around to one day help them bring a championship back to Pittsburgh.

He had other plans.

After spurning a long-term deal with the Penguins, Hossa will face his former team as a member of the Red Wings.

Roughly four months after acquiring him from the Atlanta Thrashers in a deadline-day deal Hossa turned his back on a reported five-year contract worth $35 million. He signed a one-year deal with the Red Wings, telling The Associated Press that they seemed to be a better fit for his goals.

"It was a really tough decision for me to make," Hossa said. "When I compared the two teams, I felt like I would have a little better of a chance to win the Cup in Detroit."

Considering the Penguins are loaded with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, that's one ballsy statement from a player who until last postseason was hardly a go-to guy on offense during the playoffs. From 2002-07, Hossa had 12 goals and 19 assists in 41 postseason games with the Ottawa Senators and Atlanta.

He was five assists shy of matching that total in 20 playoff games during the Pens' Cup run this past spring.

Hossa's altruistic bent toward his new team also could pay off down the road. This deal frees up valuable salary-cap space the Wings can use to try and sign stars Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.

Needless to say, Hossa is persona non grata in Steeltown.

"To me, Marian Hossa is not here," Penguins general manager Ray Shero told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I'm focused on the guys we've got coming back."

Oct. 22 – Dallas Stars vs. New Jersey Devils: Sean Avery? Meet Martin Brodeur.

This is, simply without question, the best player-versus-player feud going today.

"We're not friends," Avery once said of Brodeur. "It's not a (expletive) secret."

Not friends. Not drinking buds. Nothing.

During last season playoffs, Avery - then a noted pain in the ass with the Rangers - did everything he could to get under Brodeur's skin, even bringing up the goalie's 2003 divorce.

In April, Brodeur told The Record of Hackensack (N.J.) that Avery's shtick was getting old.

"I heard everything throughout the 2003 playoffs," he said. "The fans had signs and this and that. It's funny, the lack of new material. I told [Avery], 'It's been five years. Find something else.'"

And then there was this, which made even fanboy highlight show.

With that display, NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell instituted what will always be known as the Avery Rule: "An unsportsmanlike conduct minor penalty will be interpreted and applied, effective immediately, to a situation when an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender’s face, for the purpose of improperly interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make a play."

Needless to say, Avery and Brodeur won't be meeting for tea anytime soon.

Though Avery was a sparkplug, the Rangers were tired of his antics, and let him walk away in free agency after 14 months in New York.

The Stars didn't wait, they pounced by signing Avery to a four-year, $15.5 million contract. Undersized at 5-foot-9, Avery had 15 goals, 33 points and was second on New York with 154 penalty minutes last season. He joins Steve Ott and Brenden Morrow to form a trio that is going to annoy, annoy and annoy some more.

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