PENGUINS (0-0-0) at CANUCKS (0-0-0)
TV: VERSUS (HD), CBC
Season series: Opening night represents the only meeting of the 2011-12 season between these teams. They last matched up on Nov. 17, 2010, with Sidney Crosby opening the scoring and Marc-Andre Fleury stopping 29 shots in a 3-1 win for Pittsburgh at Consol Energy Center. It marked the first time in 10 years the Penguins beat the Canucks.
Big Story: It's the first meaningful game for Vancouver since a heart-breaking Game 7 loss on home ice to Boston in last spring's Stanley Cup Final, a series in which the Canucks once held 2-0 and 3-2 leads. The Penguins understand exactly what their opponent will be trying to accomplish this season -- Pittsburgh was defeated by Detroit in the 2008 Cup Final but rallied from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits the following year in a rematch between the clubs to win Lord Stanley.
Penguins: While everyone continues to focus on Crosby's recovery from the concussion he suffered back in January and when he might return to the Pittsburgh lineup, the Penguins quietly went about having a very strong preseason -- they won their first five games before a 3-2 loss to the Red Wings on Sunday. Crosby is with the team on this trip, though he'll start the season on injured reserve. Evgeni Malkin, however, is back and looking for a rebound season. He'll be the No. 1 center in Crosby's absence and is likely to center James Neal and offseason acquisition Steve Sullivan on the top line.
"Of course I'm excited," said Malkin, who was limited by knee injuries to 43 games last season. "I haven't played for a long time and I'm ready. I played four preseason games and my knee and body are ready. We have a great team and I think we're ready."
Canucks: When the Stanley Cup hangover gets talked about, it's usually in regards to the team that lifted the chalice at season's end -- however, it'll be interesting to see how Vancouver reacts early this season to the huge disappointment suffered back in June. The Canucks are determined to atone for losing to the Bruins, but first the defending Presidents' Trophy winners have to navigate another 82-game regular season in a Western Conference that only seems to have gotten tougher.
"The main thing is that last year is over now, we've got to focus on this season," said goaltender Roberto Luongo, who faces scrutiny of his own after struggling at times in the Final. "We know that to get to where we were, we've got to put in the work and we can't take things for granted and we've got to take it one game at a time and not look too far ahead."
Who's Hot: Malkin was among the leading preseason scorers with 3 goals and 7 points while playing in four of the Penguins' six games. … Cody Hodgson, the Canucks' first-round pick in 2008 who got a cup of coffee last season, scored a pair of goals in their preseason finale against the Oilers and will be counted upon to take the next step and contribute early, with a couple of key pieces missing.
Injury Report: In addition to Crosby being out, defenseman Brooks Orpik is questionable for Pittsburgh as he recovers from hernia surgery. … Vancouver forwards Ryan Kesler (hip) and Mason Raymond (fractured vertebrae) and defenseman Aaron Rome (broken hand) are out indefinitely.
Stat Pack: This is a matchup between the top-two penalty-killing teams in the NHL from last season. The Penguins had an 86.1 percent success rate, the first time in franchise history they led the League on the PK, while the Canucks were right behind them at 85.6 percent.
Puck Drop: While it was actually a short offseason for Vancouver after playing into June, those few months had to seem like an eternity as the players waited to get back on the ice again. It all starts for real Thursday night in front of what promises to be a lively Rogers Arena crowd.
"It's always fun, we know we've got great fans here and this is a big part of the reason we have so much success," forward Maxim Lapierre said. "We feel the energy they're bringing every game and we felt it in the playoff last year and I know it's going to be like that first game of the year on Thursday. It's a good feeling to play in front of these fans."