The Los Angeles Kings were one of seven teams that didn't return to play last summer after the coronavirus outbreak shut down the NHL in March, leaving them without a game for nearly a year.
The Kings are set to end that dry spell when they host the Minnesota Wild in the season opener for both teams on Thursday night.
"There's going to be two points on the line and we haven't played for 10 1/2 months," Los Angeles coach Todd McLellan said. "It's not going to be easy. Nobody expects it to, but it also can't be an excuse."
Los Angeles is eager to return to the playoffs after missing out the past two seasons. The Kings haven't won a playoff series since clinching the Stanley Cup title in 2014.
McLellan, in his second year with Los Angeles, will face another challenge: squeezing the most from a roster that is stacked with promising youngsters and proven veterans but void of those still in their prime.
"We're going to try and do everything we can to put them in a situation to be successful, healthy and ready," McLellan said of his players.
The Wild are hoping to get off to a good start in the newly designed West Division, which includes all three California teams.
Minnesota will get a heavy dose of the Kings early on, facing them eight times in the first 22 games.
The Wild should still have a chip on their shoulder after getting bounced in the qualifying round of the return-to-play format last August, falling to the Vancouver Canucks 3-1 in a best-of-five series.
Kevin Fiala, who led the Wild with 54 points in 64 games last season, had an up-and-down performance against Vancouver. He totaled three goals and an assist but also accumulated five minor penalties, most as a result of Vancouver's aggressive play.
"I have to be ready for that, and I will be," Fiala said. "Just have to be better mentally and be mentally strong. If anybody tries to get under my skin, I still have to be focused and stay out of the penalty box and help the team as best as I can."
Marcus Foligno scored a career-high 25 points for the Wild last season. He was rewarded on Tuesday with a three-year, $9.3 million contract extension.
"You never want to get too comfortable in this league, but it's nice to put some roots down and know that we're going to be here for three more years and four seasons," Foligno said. "When you're given a contract like this, you know you're counted on. That's what I want to be. I want to be counted on by the team."
The Kings will continue to rely on veteran forwards Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter, defenseman Drew Doughty and goalie Jonathan Quick, each of whom contributed to the team's Stanley Cup titles in 2012 and 2014, but they'll also need to get production from their array of youngsters.
Among them is forward Gabriel Vilardi, who had three goals and four assists in 10 games as a rookie last season and recently rejoined the Kings after clearing coronavirus protocols.
"He makes a difference when he's out there," McLellan said. "That's what we need from him."
--Field Level Media
|3/7/20||MIN 3||LA 7||28||28||0-3||35||25||0-4|
|Minnesota Off vs Los Angeles Def|
|Los Angeles Off vs Minnesota Def|