BOSTON -- Game on, boys!
After a bitter and long lockout that cut short the 2012-2013 season, the NHL is back on the ice when 26 of the NHL's 30 teams begin a shortened 48-game season Saturday. As many around the league have said, it will be a sprint to the playoffs. That sense of urgency will be tangible on a daily basis for the next 96 days.
The Boston Bruins open the season when they host the rival New York Rangers at 7 p.m. at TD Garden. They are favored as two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Both teams will be motivated, and the adrenaline will be off the charts at puck drop.
"I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight," said Bruins forward Nathan Horton.
It doesn't matter what happened during the lockout. No longer does it matter which side won or which side lost. It's about hockey now. It's about the game. It's about the fans. Hockey is back in Boston, and it should be a fun few months.
"I would have been extremely disappointed had we not gotten to this stage here where we're at," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "We'll give our fans an exciting half-season. It won't be a long season of 82 games, but it'll be an exciting one of 48. It's going to be playoff hockey basically from the get-go."
The Bruins are a team that is poised, motivated and built for success this season. There has been little change to the team's roster since it won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and with the core still in place, Boston has a chance to compete again in 2013.
"We're definitely looking forward to it," said Bruins forward Milan Lucic. "It was a good week of practicing and getting back into the flow of things. It was a quick transition in trying to regain and learn all the systems once again, and thankfully we have the same coach for the last five years and the systems really haven't changed. In saying that, it's up to us to go out there and perform."
During the lockout, the Bruins had 12 players -- the most of any team in the NHL -- play overseas. While that should help those players make the transition a lot quicker, there is still plenty that needs to be accomplished from a team standpoint.
"We know we have pretty much the same team as in '11, and we know what we are capable of," said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. "First we have to get ready for the beginning of the season. We know it's going to be short and every game is going to be important, but we don't want to be looking right now into the playoffs. It's important for us right now to get ready for Game 1."
Every NHL coach and his staff are trying to prepare properly for the season. Julien understands it will be tough mentally and physically on the players, and he is attempting to maximize his team's skills in the best way possible.
During the six-day training camp, Julien kept the practices short and the pace intense. Injuries might happen more frequently, but the Bruins believe they have enough depth in the organization to handle such emergencies.
"I feel like we have a great chance again this year," Horton said. "We're not going to get anything unless we work hard. We'll concentrate on working hard."
An argument can be made whether the normal 82-game season or this more condensed schedule is more grueling. All 30 teams are dealing with a tough schedule with a lot of games in a short amount of time before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 30.
The last time the NHL had a shortened season in 1994-95, current Bruins president Cam Neely was a player and remembers how "fast and furious" the games were.
Once the puck drops Saturday night against the Rangers, the Bruins have seven games in 13 days this month. The Bruins play 11 games in February, 17 in March and finish with 13 games in 27 days in April before the playoffs begin. The last possible day of the playoffs is June 28.
"It's going to add to the rivalries that are already there and the competitiveness," Lucic said. "With less games, it's going to create a much tougher battle for that first seed in the Northeast Division. It's definitely going to make it fun going in, and we're looking forward to the challenge ahead."
Unlike a season ago, the Bruins can't afford to have a bad start to the season. Sure, they were dealing with the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover, but a 3-7 start handcuffed them. A similar start this season would be even more detrimental. Julien has expressed that to his players.
"We can't ease into this," he said. "We've got to get on top of our game as soon as possible. We've got to get to work because there's no time to waste."
Listening to the players during the weeklong camp, it seems they understand exactly what Julien is preaching.
"The start's going to be important for us, as it is for everybody," Rask said. "We need to get off to a good start."
Playing consistent hockey will be important, and there will be no room for ebbs and flows this season. The Bruins will rely on their already strong chemistry to help them be successful for the next four-plus months.
"We don't have a choice," said Bruins forward Brad Marchand. "We really have to come together quick.
"We should be all right. We've pretty much played together for two years now, and we haven't really changed a whole lot. We do need to learn to get back into things quick and hopefully jell together really quick."
There are no casual fans in hockey. You're either a fan, or you're not. If there were any questions whether the fans would return after the lengthy and painful lockout, those were answered when the Bruins nearly had a full house Tuesday for the annual Black & Gold scrimmage at the Garden.
"It's going to be a crazy night at the Garden, that's for sure," Rask said.
We're ready for the highlight-reel goals and saves. We're ready for the bone-crushing, teeth-shattering hits. We're ready. Bring it.