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"It's a great day for hockey"

The division winners have been forecast, the regular season awards have been foretold, so now the only remaining thread of credibility left to stretch beyond repair is to project your conference champions and the ultimate winner of the 2006-2007 Stanley Cup. And just for kicks, we'll toss in a few extra predictions on the side.

Prince of Wales Trophy: Buffalo and Ottawa are tempting, but I'll stick with the defending Eastern Conference champs, the Carolina Hurricanes.

Clarence Campbell Bowl: Coming out the Western Conference playoffs will be a feat itself, given the plethora of well-built teams. But assuming a healthy roster is available, I'm picking the Detroit Red Wings to make it through.

And in a hard-fought rematch of the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals, the Red Wings top the Hurricanes and win their first Cup of the post-Yzerman era.

In the meantime...

First Coach To Be Fired: Trent Yawney of the Chicago Blackhawks. Just look at the picture on his bio. It's a silent cry for help.

Most Improved Team: The St. Louis Blues in a landslide. The nightmare is over, although the long walk out of the darkness will take more than one season. They won't make the playoffs, but they'll be respectable once again.

Most Disappointing Team: The Tampa Bay Lightning will continue spiraling downwards into mediocrity from their 2004 Cup win.

Most Improved Player: Alex Tanguay, Calgary Flames. No pressure, kid - you're just supposed to take a pathetic offensive team and get them to the middle of the pack. 40 goals and 50 assists ought to do the trick.

Comeback Player: Sergei Fedorov, Columbus Blue Jackets. Injuries and an early trade limited his production last year, but a full season with Rick Nash and the addition of Anson Carter should help restore him to his typical point-per-game offensive pace that goes along with solid defensive play.

"Don't Come Back" Player: Why is Jeremy Roenick still playing? Has he got any bones left that he hasn't broken?

Enjoy Opening Night, folks...

NOTE: The title here is a famous quote from "Badger" Bob Johnson, the Hall of Fame hockey coach who passed away nearly 15 years ago shortly after leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first Stanley Cup. That quote was the byline for a hockey site I used to write for about 10 years ago called In the Crease, and I thought it particularly appropriate for the Opening Night of the 2006-2007 NHL Season.