It's hard to know what this shotgun marriage of an NHL season will bring, because the spectrum of possibilities is broad enough to anticipate either a thrilling joyride to a photo finish or an unwatchable slog that feels like a 14-week groin pull. Or both, if you're still conflicted.

Most of us will wish for the former, of course, and through the first few days, there has been little to indicate that this condensed schedule cannot deliver on its most ambitious promise.

Ratings are up, and never mind that most Puck People would tune in just to hear Doc Emrick read the phone book. The turnstiles are still clicking, the result of some imaginative promotions, such as $200 season tickets down in Sunrise. The teams are eager to please, judging by those obsequious full-page ads they've used to prove their contrition.

We even witnessed a parade of Devils players stop their SUVs and sign autographs for and shake hands with a dozen lunatics waiting outside the morning skate Tuesday, and — believe this — it was the kind of morning in which you wouldn't roll down your car window for free gold bricks. Very touching. Nuts for a multitude of reasons, but still touching.

Still, you must remember this: This is not going to be a milk run. For anybody.

And if it no longer resembles the Bolshoi by mid-season, try not to be like all those neurotic NBA fans did a year ago (j'accuse!), when the play was so putrid even the cheerleaders looked miserable. Because you asked for this.

The Devils, actually, seem to be handling its demands just fine — presumably because they have a slew of guys who have been playing for months, a veteran core that knows how to deal with challenging circumstances, and a coach who seems to know when to reach for the hammer and when to pull out the kid gloves.