(SportsNetwork.com) - The Detroit Red Wings will play their first game as a member of the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, as they welcome the Buffalo Sabres to Joe Louis Arena in the season opener for both teams.
Every NHL team has new divisional opponents thanks to this season's realignment plan, but only the Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and the Winnipeg Jets switched conferences. Detroit had been a member of the Western Conference since the last time the NHL realigned the league before the 1993-94 season.
The Sabres and Red Wings now find themselves in the new iteration of the Atlantic Division, a group that also includes Boston, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto. It's one of the NHL's four divisions and the top three finishers in each group will receive automatic bids to the playoffs.
Detroit has made the playoffs in 22 straight seasons and Mike Babcock's club is a good bet to make it 23 appearances in a row in the spring of 2014 after making it to the second round in 2013. Buffalo, however, is a club in the midst of a rebuilding phase, although there is hope the reclamation project won't take too long to bear fruit.
The Red Wings made some notable additions to their offense last summer, signing forwards Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss to free-agent deals. Of course, the signing of the former guy made big waves in Ottawa, which was Alfredsson's home for his entire NHL career before the 40-year old signed a one-year, $5.5 million contract to join Detroit.
Alfredsson has said he expects to hear boos when the Red Wings visit their new division rival in Ottawa for the first time this season, although that first trip to Canada's capital city won't come until Dec. 1.
With Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg still expected to do most of the heavy lifting on offense, the Red Wings don't need Alfredsson or Weiss to play like superstars, only to provide a boost to the team's offensive depth.
"The biggest thing for our team, we look good on paper, we have good depth, good team, we have to execute on the ice," said Red Wings forward Daniel Cleary. "I'm looking forward to playing these new teams more often. It'll be great for everybody involved, the fans, the media, just a different look."
Jimmy Howard will get the call in net for the Red Wings on Wednesday after turning in his best season as an NHLer in 2013, going 21-13-7 with a 2.13 goals against average and .923 save percentage in 42 appearances. The 29-year- old also tied with four other players for the league lead with five shutouts, giving Howard 11 white-washings over his last two seasons.
Ryan Miller will face Howard tonight and, along with sniper Thomas Vanek, the Buffalo goaltender is one of his team's best assets.
However, Miller, a former Vezina Trophy winner, did not have his best season in 2013, although that had something to do with Buffalo's lack of depth on both sides of the ice. Miller went 17-17-5 in 2013 and his goals against average of 2.81 was his highest number of any season in which he played in at least 10 games. Miller also failed to record a single shutout for the first time since the 2003-04 campaign, when the American played in only three games.
Both Miller and Vanek, who had 20 goals and 41 points in 38 games last season, are impending unrestricted free agents and could be used as trade bait during this season for the rebuilding Sabres. However, Miller says he hasn't ruled out re-signing with Buffalo when his contract is up at the end of the season, even if the Sabres decide to trade him before he is scheduled to hits free agency in the summer of 2014.
Vanek, meanwhile, was named as Buffalo's co-captain along with Steve Ott earlier this week. Ott will serve as captain in road games, while Vanek will take on the duties at home.
On the injury front, Buffalo will be without forwards Marcus Foligno (strained shoulder) and Corey Tropp (jaw surgery) and defenseman Nikita Zadorov (lacerated finger). All three players are currently on injured reserve.
The Sabres have missed the playoffs in two straight and four of the last six seasons, and the chances of returning to the postseason in 2014 seem slim heading into this campaign.
Because teams from opposing conference didn't play each other during the lockout-shortened season of 2013, this will mark the first meeting between the Sabres and Red Wings since 2011-12, when Detroit won both encounters.
The Red Wings are 19-2-1 with a tie in the last 23 meetings between these teams overall and Buffalo has lost three straight and 11 of its last 12 games in the Motor City.