Crystal balls have never worked in predicting the volatile NHL, and when it comes to assessing the shortened season the league is about to embark on in its 78th year, the only thing that will really work is due process.
"You can't predict," said Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, who has six Stanley Cup championships to his credit. "You couldn't predict before because there are just too many teams, and you can predict even less now because of the lockout. There are just too many variables. Too much we don't know."
If ever there was a season of mystery, this is it. The game will be afoot tonight, or as the NHL is fond of saying: "Game On" after a 104-day lockout that delayed opening day for 3 1/2 months and created a 48-game season for the first time since 1941-42.
But where will it all end?
A year ago, many NHL observers believed the Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins would meet in the Cup finals. Instead, the unpredictable New York Rangers, with the weight of 54 Cup-less years in tow, and the surprising Vancouver Canucks arrived for the showdown.
Together they produced one of the most tantalizing championship series in NHL history, a series the Rangers won in the seventh game at raucous Madison Square Garden -- where they will finally hang the championship banner tonight before the season opener against Buffalo.
So much for predictability.
This year, it looks as if the Rangers could mount a strong defense of the title -- even without Mike Keenan, who bolted New York barely a month after winning the title, claiming breach of contract. Keenan ended up as coach and general manager of the St. Louis Blues.
Bowman said last night that this "may or may not be" his coaching finale, and with time running short, he admitted with a laugh, "I'd love to get that seventh Cup."
Just how much showed this summer. After becoming director of hockey operations, he wasted no time grabbing goalie Mike Vernon (26-17-5 with a 2.81 goals-against average) from Calgary to help solve his biggest problem of the past season -- keeping the puck out of the net.
On the offensive side, the Red Wings scored a league-high 356 goals.
Red Wing Sergei Fedorov won the league MVP trophy and led a strong group of forwards with 56 goals and 120 points. Detroit also found the lockout to their benefit, because right wing Steve Yzerman has had time to recover from neck surgery.
"I think the best of the teams will come out strong early," Bowman said. "I think we're all going to feel an urgency because there aren't that many games. Once you fall behind, you don't have much time to catch up."
The Devils sound ready to take things one step further than last year, when they lost the Eastern Conference final in seven
games to the Rangers.
Though the conference appears to be very competitive, the Devils should have no problem making the playoffs, if last year's rookie goaltending sensation, Martin Brodeur, can produce another outstanding season.
Brodeur had a 2.40 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. The Devils have no super scorer, but John MacLean (37 goals) and Stephane Richer (36) led 14 players who had 10 or more goals.
"I think we are capable of going to the finals," said Scott Niedermayer, who with veteran Scott Stevens, leads the Devils' solid defense. "Last year we were close, and I don't see why this year would be any different. We hope to improve on that."
If the Vancouver Canucks improve on where they finished last June, they'll be swinging from the rafters. The Canucks took the Rangers to seven games before losing by a goal, 3-2, in the Garden.
The Canucks will try again with terrific goaltender Kirk McLean, a rugged defense and a balanced forward attack, with Geoff Courtnall, Cliff Ronning, Trevor Linden and the big-gun Pavel Bure, who scored 60 goals during the regular season and 16 in the playoffs.
In Buffalo, center Pat LaFontaine has recovered from knee surgery that ended his season after 16 games in 1993-94, and if Alexander Mogilny can regain his rookie 76-goal form, the Sabres should be right there -- especially since Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Dominik Hasek (30-20-6, with a 1.95 gaa) is delighted with his new contract.
Last season -- before the lockout -- the NHL became the hot ticket in sports, making the cover of Sports Illustrated, where it was favorably compared with the NBA, and capturing the imagination of the public.
Who would have predicted that in the face of that excitement and success, the NHL owners would stand for a 104-day lockout that would dull the game's new, bright glitter?
But all of it happened. Tonight, the biggest mystery of all will begin to unravel -- will the glitter be back?