Rangers-Derek Stepan: After missing all of training camp and the pre-season due to a contract stalemate, Stepan has had less than a week of practices with the Rangers to prepare for the season opener. Will he be ready to go? That is the big question. Alain Vigneault noted Wednesday that Stepan has looked real good in practice, but until the coach sees Stepan play in an actual game, he can not truly say where the 23 year-old center's game is at. Make no mistake, the fourth-year pro is incredibly important to the success of the Rangers this season. Coming off a team-high 44 points (18-26-44) in 48 games a year ago, Stepan has been immediately slotted between veterans Rick Nash and Brad Richards on the top line, and he will be counted on for top offensive production to go along with standout play on the team's top penalty killing unit and power play unit. It's a small sampling, but Stepan has two points (1-1-2) in three career games against the Coyotes. And let's not forget his opening night heroics as a rookie when he netted three goals in hs first-ever NHL game three seasons agao against Buffalo. Let's see where he's at Thursday night.
Coyotes-Mike Smith: For the Phoenix Coyotes it all begins with goaltender Mike Smith. Two years ago when Smith had a standout season---franchise record 8 shutouts, career-best 2.21 goals against, .930 save percentage, and 38 victories---Phoenix was a playoff team, one that finished just three wins shy of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. Last season Smith's play was more erratic---he did lead the league with 5 shutouts, but his goals against rose to 2.58 and his save percentage plummeted to .910---and not surprisingly the Coyotes finished in 10th place in the Western Conference, on the outside looking in come playoff time. The 31 year-old Smith needs to be the difference maker again this season for Phoenix, and it starts with opening night, on home ice, Thursday.