(Reuters) - A new NHL season opens this week with the Pittsburgh Penguins taking aim at a rare three-peat as Stanley Cup champions, a high-stakes gamble in Las Vegas and lofty expectations for the game’s young talent.
The Penguins may have lost some notable players during the offseason but any team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will like their chances of extending the dominant run.
Should the Penguins be the last team standing in June, they would become the NHL’s first team to three-peat as Stanley Cup champions since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983.
So rare is the feat that many of the game’s greatest players, including Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, could not pull it off.
“We know the odds aren’t on our side. That’s OK,” said Crosby, whose Penguins will raise their championship banner on Wednesday when the 2017-18 season begins. “We have a group that believes in one another, and it’s going to take a lot of things to go right, but why not?”
Crosby, a three-time Stanley Cup champion who has been named Most Valuable Player of the regular season and playoffs twice each, has been the game’s greatest player since he made his NHL debut in 2005.
But the 30-year-old Canadian is no shoo-in to hang onto the label given the emergence of talented youngsters like Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews.
McDavid, 20, is coming off a sophomore season in which he was the scoring champion and league MVP while Matthews, who only turned 20 two weeks ago, was the top rookie after a campaign in which his 40 goals trailed only Crosby’s 44.
The talented duo, each tasked with leading their respective teams back to respectability, are among the faces of the NHL’s next generation that are ushering in a new era of speed and skill on the ice.
This season also marks the debut of the Vegas Golden Knights as the NHL decided last year to roll the dice on becoming the first league to put a major pro sports team in Sin City, a gambling destination known more for craps and slots than sticks and ice.
While the team is not expected to be competitive out of the gate since expansion teams generally struggle the first season, there is still plenty of demand to see Vegas play as seven of the 10 most in-demand games this season feature the Golden Knights, according to ticket seller StubHub.
After starting the season with two road games the Golden Knights, with a roster assembled from scratch that lacks scoring punch and will likely need time to develop chemistry, will host their first regular season game on Oct. 10 against the Arizona Coyotes.
“We’re a new group, it’s not like you’re coming back to a team like when I was (coaching) in Florida and 19 of your players are returning,” Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant said. “This year it’s all new players.”
The NHL’s 82-game regular season will not be interrupted by the 2018 Olympics as Commissioner Gary Bettman held firm on his stance that it was not worth the hassle of having a compressed schedule and risking players getting injured in Pyeongchang.
That means NHL players will not compete in the Olympics for the first time since 1998.
There are three outdoor games this season, the first coming on Dec. 16 when the league celebrates the 100th anniversary of the first two NHL games with a clash between the Montreal Canadiens and host Ottawa Senators.
The home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets will host the second outdoor game when the New York Rangers face the Buffalo Sabres in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1.
The Maple Leafs and Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals will round out the outdoor action when they clash on March 3 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Gene Cherry