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NHL schedule released; Top 5 games to watch next season

By Brian Stubits | CBSSports.com
The Wings and Leafs will meet in the Big House on New Year's Day. (US Presswire)

The NHL released its schedule on Thursday. It assumes a few things: 1) the Coyotes will still be in Phoenix for next season and 2) the season will start on Oct. 11 with the Bruins visiting the Flyers and the Senators visiting the Canadiens at 7 ET. The Canucks will head to Calgary and the Blues will visit the Avalanche to finish up the first day of the season.

Both of those are still big assumptions, although the season starting on time is the much more aggressive prediction to make. We're probably to the point with the Coyotes that it's too late to move them in time for next season, even if things fall through with Greg Jamison.

So before we go any further, here are the tentative schedules for next season.

Full NHL schedule | Team-by-team schedules
| On the Forecheck: Who travels most, least?

Now with the schedule coming out, what better time to look ahead at the biggest games of the season? (OK, I'll grant that after free agency and trades would be a better time, but they're fresh now!)

No. 1: Jan. 1, Toronto Maple Leafs at Detroit Red Wings, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Of course this tops the list. There is no bigger regular-season game now than the Winter Classic. That's a fact, cemented by the fact that it gets ratings that rival playoff games.

This year the outdoor game returns to the football field, this time at the Big House on the campus of the University of Michigan. They really never have gone this big before and it's going to be quite a sight to see. More than 100,000 fans are going to be there and with the Leafs being the visitor, there should be good representation from both sides in the seats.

As for the game itself? Well let's be honest here, the Winter Classic isn't about the game as much as it is the spectacle. The run-up to the game on HBO's 24/7 should do enough to bring the intrigue to a game that, for the first time, features teams from opposite conferences playing each other. Of course, the two franchises have history, so that negates it al.

The two best goalies this season will meet in their first game. (Getty Images)

No. 2: Oct. 12, New York Rangers at Los Angeles Kings

Since the champions reside in the Pacific Time Zone, it's tough for the NHL to give them the first game of the season at home. So obviously they didn't.

Instead, the Kings will begin their defense of the Stanley Cup on the second day of the season at Staples Center vs. the team they almost faced in the Final, the Rangers. It was a matchup that we thought possible three games into the conference finals this year before New Jersey won three straight and knocked the Rangers out.

The best matchup of all, though, is the goaltenders. You have the guy who just won the Vezina Trophy -- Henrik Lundqvist -- vs. the guy who just won the Conn Smythe and, in this writer's estimation, should have won the Vezina -- Jonathan Quick.

I like the NHL's attempt to give the Kings a marquee national appeal for their first game of the season by pitting them against a top Eastern foe.

No. 3: The final day of the season

The NHL is taking a small page out of college football's book by booking a lot of rivalries for the final day of the season, which is slated right now for Saturday, April 13. You have the Rangers at the Flyers, Red Wings at Avalanche, Canadiens at Maple Leafs, Devils at Islanders, Blackhawks at Blues, Flames at Oilers and Ducks at Kings.

In total, 14 games will be played on the last day of the season, which makes for a great conclusion if there is any doubt left in the playoff races. The only teams that aren't playing on that Saturday are the Canucks and the Hurricanes. Otherwise, everybody else is in action.

It's too hard to pick out one game at this point, but it would appear that the NHL has their eyes on the Rangers-Flyers and Wings-Avs games to be the spotlights as they are both slated for 3 ET start times.

No. 4: Oct. 31, Pittsburgh at Washington

This series has been one of the best rivalries in the NHL in recent seasons with three of the game's absolute best players on display.

They will go at it and probably put the fight in Fright Night as the only game on Halloween for the season.

Even if you aren't a fan of either team, these games have been as close to must-watch as regular-season games come, despite them not being in the same division. Finally, Sidney Crosby will return to the rivalry and that just adds a little more juice considering the constant comparisons between he and Alex Ovechkin.

This one is a treat, no trick. Unless, of course, the game isn't played because of CBA negotiations. Then it's a cruel trick.

No. 5: Dec. 29, Boston at Vancouver

The one matchup these two had this past season was probably the most entertaining game we had all season long. The rivalry from their Stanley Cup showdown in 2011 was still bubbling hot.

These teams will still have mostly the same cast of characters, so I doubt there will be any love lost yet. It's the first time the Bruins will return to Vancouver since hoisting the Stanley Cup and I bet the Canucks fans are waiting for the chance to greet them improperly.

With all apologies to the rematch between this year's Finalists, which comes Feb. 9 when the Kings visit the Devils, this is still the series with the more intrigue in a rematch. This year's Final couldn't compare to the intensity level and hatred we saw two years ago. There is still some unfinished business here. Remember Brad Marchand's clip?

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

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