NHL teams with familiar faces hope to get jump

The 48-game sprint of a hockey season hasn’t even started, and
NHL players are already winded.

There is very little in terms of a blueprint on how to prep for
a lockout-shortened season that will be crammed into just 99 days
after less than a week of training camp.

But ready or not, the puck will drop on Saturday and there is a
small margin of error as every game now carries extra weight.

”It’s not a grind. We want this,” said Columbus Blue Jackets
president of hockey operations John Davidson, a former NHL goalie.
”We’ve been waiting months for this, to have this puck drop and
hear the skates, bodies banging, and guys with lots of energy.

”Coaches have had months and months and months to get ready.
It’s all good.”

Teams aren’t flying completely blind because this is the second
time a long NHL lockout forced a season to be cut from 82 games to
48 per team. Back in 1995, the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red
Wings made the most of their opportunities and reached the Stanley
Cup finals.

”It feels like we just came out of an All-Star break or
something like that. We’ve got the same team,” Phoenix Coyotes
coach Dave Tippett said. ”The guys understand what we’re trying to
do. We don’t have to put a lot of time explaining terms or what
we’re going to do.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins are trying to tap into the past to get a
leg up now. Player development coach Bill Guerin was a member of
those 1995 Devils, who got into the playoffs as the No. 5 seed in
the Eastern Conference and rode the wave to a sweep of the Red
Wings in the finals.

”They didn’t start well. They were starting under .500 their
first segment,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. ”They were a team
that did have a lot of veteran experience, and we’ve talked to
Billy about his experience, and how the team came back, and how
they rotated players in and out of the lineup, how the goalie was
played, what the talk in training camp was.”

History suggests clubs that rush into this season without having
to rely on nametags might already have an edge.

”We can look at that as a positive for sure,” Penguins captain
Sidney Crosby said. ”Guys understand their roles and what they
need to do, and there’s trust there. Maybe with some newer guys you
have to develop that a little bit more, but I would say it can’t
hurt. It certainly helps a little bit to have that
familiarity.”

The Buffalo Sabres are in a similar position. Even though they
failed to reach the playoffs last season, they are returning a core
of players that surged to a 15-5-4 finish that left them just short
of a postseason spot.

Only Brad Boyes isn’t back with this crew of hungry Sabres.
Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff doesn’t have to teach his system, so his
focus this week has been on conditioning and getting his club ready
to jump into game action.

”We’re going to concentrate on trying to ramp up tuning the
body and getting ready for a real hard compete,” he said.

Ruff, who has been behind the Sabres bench since 1997, can
harken back to his own experience as an assistant coach in 1995
with the Florida Panthers.

”I remember going into it, you just thought every game meant so
much,” Ruff said. ”I think what you have to really be careful of
is not putting too much into the wins, and not putting too much
into the losses.

”Try to keep a pretty level ground.”

That is an easy philosophy to adopt now, but it is one that can
quickly change after a club’s first three-game losing streak.

”Every game is like a playoff game,” said Devils president and
general manager Lou Lamoriello, who has held those posts since
1987. ”The game is different today than it was in 1995. It’s going
to be extremely interesting.”

Training camps opened last Sunday, and with only six or seven
days before each team was set to begin the regular-season schedule,
there was no time for any exhibition games. Some clubs held
scrimmages within their rosters or brought in a minor league
affiliate to play against just to create some type of game
atmosphere.

Teams that have multiple players on their rosters who went to
Europe to play during the long lockout might have an extra step
against clubs whose players remained home.

”For me not playing, I’m definitely a little winded out there,
even after a quick burst up and down the ice,” Philadelphia Flyers
forward Scott Hartnell said. ”You can definitely feel the lungs
burning a little bit. I haven’t really talked to many of the guys
who have played, but they’re not bending over their stick and
things like that.

”Definitely the first couple of weeks you want to keep the
shifts short, not get extended, not do something at the end of a
shift so that you’re going to get caught out there.”

The Minnesota Wild have quite a new look to their team and have
been waiting months to show off new high-priced acquisitions Zach
Parise up front and Ryan Suter on defense.

With talent like that, the Wild certainly aren’t too concerned
about getting their new stars comfortable on the ice.

”I think there will be a sense of urgency, definitely,” said
Suter, who along with Parise signed a 13-year, $98 million deals
early in free agency last July. ”A shortened schedule, guys know
we have to be going from Day 1. In the past, you could get away
with having a little slump. But now with the shortened schedule
you’re not going to be able to.”

That is why the San Jose Sharks are confident their slightly
altered team will be able to thrive right from the get-go and start
to erase the memory of a first-round playoff loss to St. Louis last
season.

”We just have to go over a little review,” Sharks captain Joe
Thornton said. ”There is not too many new faces in here. We know
what’s expected of us. We know what kind of game we’re supposed to
play. We just have to execute it. Hopefully not having too many new
faces will help us.”

Sharks coach Todd McLellan is not only relying on team
chemistry, he is even keeping line trios together.

Look for Thornton to join Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski on
the top line, and Logan Couture, Martin Havlat and Ryane Clowe to
make up line No. 2.

”We’d like to see some new combinations and we’d like to try
some, but right now we’re going to go with some familiar faces,”
McLellan said. ”The understanding of how each player reacts in a
certain situation allows them to maybe play faster and quicker.
We’ll go that route to start. I don’t know if that will stay that
way.”

Perhaps until that first two- or three-game losing streak.

”You look at how tight it is in an 82-game schedule at the end
of the year, there is not very many points separating fifth from
12th,” Wild forward Kyle Brodziak said. ”I think everyone
imagines it’s going to be that much tighter this year. Everyone
expects that.

”It’s going to be a battle every single night, and more often
than we’re used to. So it’s good. The coaches have a plan, and
that’s their job. We already know they do, and I’m sure they have a
good one.

”We just have to be ready to go to be a part of it.”

AP Sports Writers Rusty Miller, John Marshall, John Wawrow, Josh
Dubow, Dave Campbell, Will Graves, and Dan Gelston contributed to
this report.