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NHL: Penguins aim for 3rd straight title, Knights' era begins

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Los Angeles (AFP)

The NHL is set for its 100th season of play with a record 31 teams and Pittsburgh looking for the three-peat, but for the first time since 1994 there will be no break for the Olympics.

The Penguins, who beat the Nashville Predators in six games to win their second-straight Stanley Cup title, will get the season started on Wednesday with a banner-raising ceremony at the PPG Arena before they host the St. Louis Blues.

Penguins star Sidney Crosby turned 30 in August but isn't showing any signs of slowing down. He has won three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals and two consecutive Conn Smythe trophies as the MVP of the playoffs.

"I feel good. I take care of myself," he said. "But I am still trying to get faster, whether that happens or not, we will have to wait and see."

NHL players have taken part in the last five Winter Olympics but that won't happen this time around. The league announced they would not be going to Pyeonchang, South Korea and that means there will be no break in the regular season schedule like they have done in the past.

Several players including Russia's Alex Ovechkin have vowed to take part in the Games anyway.

There is hope for Olympic participation in the future though. The NHL did go overseas for two preseason games last month between the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings in China, the host of the 2022 Olympics.

The Chinese are building state-of-the-art rinks and attracting new players every year and with a population of 1.4 billion people, the NHL would love to tap into that.

"The effort here is to build from the grassroots up and to try to grow the appreciation for the sport, the understanding of the sport," said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. "We've certainly made the Chinese Ice Hockey Federation and the Chinese government aware that we're willing to help any way we can as they gear up and prepare for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games."

The league, which began in 1917 with five clubs, added its 31st team when the expansion Vegas Golden Knights were awarded a franchise in June 2016. The Knights begin play this season in the Pacific Division of the Western Conference.

The Golden Knights have molded a rag-tag bunch of experienced veterans and promising picks from two drafts into the first expansion team in 17 years.

"We are not interested in being anyone's doormat," GM George McPhee said.

- Shock exit -

The Blackhawks, still reeling from their shock first-round exit from the postseason by the overachieving Predators, made good on their promise to shake things up in the offseason.

But some moves, like bringing back ageing 35-year-old veteran Patrick Sharp appear to be a step backward. Chicago also dealt away star defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson and forward Artemi Panarin in moves that smack of desperation.

"It is a different season. We will be playing for keeps and getting off to a big start," promised coach Joel Quenneville.

The Penguins added some much needed muscle and a protector for the concussion-prone Crosby by acquiring enforcer Ryan Reaves from St. Louis Blues for Oskar Sundqvist and a first round draft pick.

Key offseason moves included forward Patrick Marleau joining the Toronto Maple Leafs after 19 seasons with San Jose, Penguins Stanley Cup series hero Chris Kunitz signing a one year deal with Tampa Bay and forward Jordan Eberle being traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the New York Islanders for Ryan Strome.

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