(Sports Network) - The Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators will begin their 2008-09 regular seasons in Sweden, as the clubs meet today at The Globe Arena in Stockholm.
This will be the second of two season-opening games in Europe for the NHL, as the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning are in the Czech Republic at Prague's O2 Arena. The Pens and Sens and the Rangers and Lightning will also meet on Sunday to complete the NHL's opening weekend overseas.
It marks the second straight year that the league has begun its campaign in Europe after the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks started last season with a pair of games in London.
The Senators are the designated home club for today's encounter, while the defending Eastern Conference champion Penguins will hold that distinction in Sunday's matchup.
Ottawa has won the last three regular-season meetings with the Penguins, but the teams have also faced off in the playoffs in each of the last two springs. The Sens defeated Pittsburgh in the opening round en route to a berth in the Stanley Cup finals in 2007, while the Pens downed Ottawa last April in the first round and also went all the way to the Cup finals.
One thing that hurts Pittsburgh's chances to repeat as Eastern Conference champions this year is that winger Marian Hossa will not be back for another playoff run with the Pens. Hossa was acquired by Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero at last year's deadline, but opted to sign a one-year deal in the offseason with Detroit, the club who defeated the Penguins for the Stanley Cup last spring.
Still, with superstar centermen Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in tow as well as franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins plan on being Cup contenders for years to come.
Shero may not have had the cash to lure Hossa back to the Igloo, but did land a handful of new wingers in the offseason for Crosby and Malkin to play with, including former 30-goal scorer Miroslav Satan.
However, the Penguins are also plagued by injuries to their defensive corps heading into this season. The club's top two defenseman, Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, are sidelined with shoulder and foot injuries, respectively. Gonchar, who was second amongst NHL defensemen with 65 points in 2007-08, is expected to miss four-to-six months, while Whitney, who had 12 goals and 28 assists last year, will be out until at least January.
Ottawa, meanwhile, will try to regain the swagger that led the club to its first-ever Eastern Conference title in 2007. During that postseason run of two years ago, the Senators seemingly erased the notion that they were playoff underachievers, but the team followed up by getting swept in the opening round by Pittsburgh.
Even before the playoff collapse against the Penguins, Ottawa fired head coach John Paddock and replaced him for the remainder of the season with general manager Bryan Murray, who hired Craig Hartsburg as the official replacement this offseason.
A large part of the Senators' slide had to do with the antics of former goaltender Ray Emery, who was a hero in the run to the Cup, but then became a distraction during the 2007-08 campaign.
Emery was late for practice on a few occasions last season, creating animosity between the netminder and management. Bryan Murray eventually opted to get rid of Emery this offseason, buying out the final two years of his contract. The 25-year-old backstop is now out of the NHL, having signed a one-year deal to play in Russia this year.
The Senators weren't exactly bad last year, recording 94 points, but that was also the first time the franchise failed to gain 100 points in a season since the 2001-02 campaign.
Ottawa has a great deal of offensive talent with the likes of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, but the defense and starting goaltender Martin Gerber are still question marks for the club.
Alfredsson, Ottawa's captain and a native of Gothenburg, is a superstar in his home country will certainly be the center of attention for many of the Swedish fans.
The Senators will likely be without centerman Mike Fisher for both games in Stockholm as he's still suffering from a sore groin.
The Penguins have lost seven of their last eight season openers, while the Sens have began their last four campaigns with victories.