By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - After dragging its fans through another draining labor dispute, the National Hockey League returns Saturday promising supporters more bang for their buck and a playoff chase sure to have hockey hearts pumping.
Having settled a 113-day lockout in time to run a shortened season, Commissioner Gary Bettman, the players and teams offered apologies to fans along with discounted tickets, merchandise, free parking and open practices.
But according to Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, while free hot dogs are nice, having a winning team is more important.
That is particularly true this season as the NHL's 30 clubs scramble to make up for the revenue shortfall during the lockout by making the playoffs and securing additional home games.
What is normally a grueling seven-month 82-game marathon will instead be a condensed, thrill-a-minute 48-game sprint to the postseason where a minor slump or injury could cost a team a shot at the Stanley Cup.
"It is going to be excitingly bizarre," St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters. "There are going to be games where no lead is safe.
"You are going to have to fight through that and keep the train on the tracks because there are going to be some emotional rollercoasters players and fans are going to go through."
The Pittsburgh Penguin are widely considered favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup when the playoffs finally reach a climax in late June.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who missed most of the last two seasons recovering from concussion-like symptoms, is fit and ready to lead a powerhouse lineup that features reigning NHL most valuable player and scoring champion Evgeni Malkin.
As Crosby, the face of the NHL, spent the lockout at home while appearing regularly at labor talks, Malkin was playing in his native Russia and arrives at training camp in top shape having been among the Kontinental Hockey League's top scorers.
The New York Rangers, Pittsburgh's Atlantic division rival, also look ready to challenge for a championship having upgraded their roster after finishing first in the Eastern Conference and falling two wins shy of a Stanley Cup Finals berth last year.
In one of the off-season's biggest moves, the Rangers landed former goal-scoring champion Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets, adding more firepower to a lineup that includes 40-goal scorer Marian Gaborik.
With a solid defense backed by reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers and Penguins could battle all the way to the Eastern Conference final.
The season opens January 19 with 26 teams in action, including the reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who will unveil their championship banner before opening the defense of their crown against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Kings will start the season without top center Anze Kopitar, the Slovenian having injured his knee while playing in Switzerland, and hope netminder Jonathan Quick, voted the most valuable player of last year's playoffs, is back in top form.
The frugal Minnesota Wild, who have missed the playoffs the last four seasons, will be looking to end that drought after signing marquee free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year contracts that transformed the struggling franchise from a bottom-10 team into a potential playoff qualifier overnight.
The Vancouver Canucks, who finished with the NHL's best record the last two regular seasons, should be among the best in the Western Conference again led by high-scoring Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
With Vancouver's Cory Schneider tipped to be the starting goalie, Roberto Luongo, who was in net for Canada's gold medal victory at the 2010 Winter Olympics, is expected to be traded in a deal that would add depth to an already deep Canucks roster.
Several teams face steep learning curves as they bring in new coaches.
Adam Oates makes his NHL head coaching debut for the Washington Capitals while Michel Therrien is back for his second stint behind the Montreal Canadiens bench.
The battle of Alberta will have a Swiss flavor this season, with Ralph Krueger, who coached both the Swiss national and league teams, promoted to top job with the Edmonton Oilers and Bob Hartley taking over the Calgary Flames after coaching the Zurich Lions last season.
For the first time in 23 years, the Detroit Red Wings will start a season without seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom anchoring the blueline but the Teemu Selanne, Czech Olympic gold medalist Jaromir Jagr and Swedish Olympic champion Daniel Alfredsson are all back for one more shot at glory.
Selanne, 42, the Anaheim Ducks leading scorer last season, returns for a 20th NHL season while Jagr, 40, who sits eighth on the league's all-time scoring list, joins the Dallas Stars after a season with the Philadelphia Flyers and Alfredsson, 40, returns to captain the Senators.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)