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Rivalries, bad blood and milestones: 10 NHL games worth tuning into in 2018-19

The Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers don't have the history to have a rivalry, and it's never been a matchup demanding much attention — even though they share a division.

The Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers don't have the history to have a rivalry, and it's never been a matchup demanding much attention — even though they share a division.

But that changed this pre-season when Montreal forward Max Domi punched Florida defenceman Aaron Ekblad in the face, leaving the blue-liner down on the ice with two black eyes.

"We definitely won't forget about it," Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo said post-game on Sept. 19, while adding it was a "bit of a gutless play."

The league suspended Domi for the remainder of the exhibition schedule, something Ekblad referenced as more of a "gift" while taking a peak at the calendar to see when the Panthers would face Montreal next.

"It's dumb. I think he's stupid for doing it," Ekblad told reporters at practice on Sept. 20. "In the end, it's hockey. That's the way it goes, scores will get settled at a later date."

The Panthers and Canadiens meet for the first time since the incident on Dec. 28 in Sunrise, Fla., and it's one of 10 games worth keeping your eye on this season.

Here are nine other must-see games for the 2018-19 NHL season.

1. John Tavares's Toronto Maple Leafs debut, Oct. 3.

Toronto had a reputation in recent years for only being able to sign a hometown player well after his prime, but Tavares changed that this off-season when he inked a seven-year, US$77-million contract with the Maple Leafs. He'll make his regular-season debut for the team he grew up cheering for on the NHL's opening night against Montreal, just months after tweeting a photo of himself as a child sleeping in Leafs inspired bedsheets to announce his signing.

2. Ilya Kovalchuk's return to the NHL, Oct. 5.

Kovalchuk's first NHL game in more than five years will be against San Jose in Los Angeles, and will give fans a chance to see if he is anywhere near the same player he was when he left the league for the KHL in 2013. The 35-year-old signed a three-year, $18.75-million contract with the Kings on July 1 after most recently playing for SKA St. Petersburg. He produced 816 points in 816 NHL games before leaving and returns to the league 83 goals shy of the 500-club.

3. Tomas Plekanec's 1,000th NHL game, Oct. 6.

Plekanec played the first 981 games of his NHL career with Montreal before being shipped to Toronto at last season's trade deadline. He played just 17 games with the Maple Leafs and enters this year two short of the 1,000 club. Now back with the Canadiens after re-signing in the off-season, Plekanec will get to reach his milestone in his familiar Habs uniform, with a blue turtleneck, underneath against the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

4. Connor McDavid starts season in Sweden, . Oct. 6.

McDavid and his Edmonton Oilers play their first regular-season game against the New Jersey Devils in Gothenburg, Sweden as part of the 2018 NHL Global Series. Because of time zones, fans in North America will get a chance to see the reigning league MVP play while the sun is up (1 p.m. ET). Both the Oilers and Devils headed to Europe early for exhibition games in Switzerland and Germany, and will be eager to get the season officially underway.

5. Stanley Cup rematch, Oct. 10.

The Washington Capitals play host to the Vegas Golden Knights in a rematch of the 2018 Stanley Cup final in just their third game of the season. Vegas will be quickly reminded of its defeat against Washington as the Capitals will have their Cup banner hanging in the rafters by the time the Golden Knights come to town. Vegas was the feel-good story of the year as a franchise in its inaugural season, but the Caps halted the Golden Knights' perfect ending with four straight victories to take the Cup in five games.

6. Joe Thornton's 1,500th NHL game, Oct. 18.

Thornton is second on the all-time games played list amongst active skaters and would have reached the 1,500-game milestone last season if it wasn't for a knee injury that shut him down in January for the rest of the year, including playoffs. The future Hall of Famer enters this year at 1,493 games played, meaning if he stays healthy he would reach the mark when San Jose hosts Buffalo. Only former teammate Patrick Marleau (1,575) has more games under his belt. Thornton and Marleau went 1-2 in the 1997 NHL draft.

7. Max Pacioretty's return to Montreal,  Nov. 10.

The former Canadiens captain was a fan favourite in Montreal but struggled last season and found himself on the outside as trade demand rumours began to surface, and then eventually refuted by his agent Allan Walsh. Now with the Golden Knights after an off-season trade made by Montreal with the future in mind, Pacioretty will play the first game of his career at Bell Centre in a different uniform after being drafted by the Canadiens in 2007.

8. Erik Karlsson's return to Ottawa, Dec. 1.

The two-time Norris Trophy winner called Ottawa home for nine seasons and was the face of the franchise until a trade right before training camp saw him shipped west to San Jose. Senators fans were unhappy to see him go, part of all the turmoil surrounding the franchise and owner Eugene Melnyk. There should be open arms for the defenceman's return to the nation's capital. It will also be the only game this season the Sharks visit Ottawa.

9. NHL Winter Classic, Jan. 1.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins will meet in the NHL's annual New Year's Day Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind., home of the Fighting Irish. It'll be the sixth time that Chicago has played an outdoor game, including the Stadium Series, but just the second against an Original 6 franchise. Both teams will be dressed to impress with commemorative sweaters that are only worn for the occasion.


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Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press