NHL Returns to Play

“You’re travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”

One of the storied openings to The Twilight Zone TV series effectively sums up what we have all experienced since most of the world was put on hold back in March.

While there are undoubtedly more important things that have been affected by the advent of COVID-19, the loss of sports has been a jarring experience for so many.

Whether it’s your son, or daughter, unable to play soccer this summer or finish out their hockey season, or whether you missed gathering with friends to take in the big game, the lockdown on all sporting activities has confirmed something about the human race.

We love games. We love to both play them, and to watch them. Whatever the sport, it is a communal thing. It brings people together, people of different economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. We may not cheer for the same team, but we are all fans of the sport we’re watching.

Part of a metered attempt by society to slowly return to normal involves getting back out on the field, the pitch, or back on the ice. And that includes professional sports, including the National Hockey League.

Since the final game was in the books back on March 11th, it has been a guessing game whether or not the NHL would return anytime soon. Could the league finish the 2019-2020 regular season? No, time won’t permit that.

Could they hold the revered Stanley Cup Playoffs? Yes, but with a few twists thrown into the mix.

It has been an incredible undertaking to get the league back up and running during a worldwide pandemic. While everybody wanted to return to action, it had to be done with due caution, and care. The NHL is more than just the players, and coaches, and trainers. It is also the arena staff, and the league support crew, in addition to the people who will run the hotels, restaurants, and other services, that will be operating in the two hub cities.

The big question will be whether teams can avoid COVID-19 infections. The answer will be yes if the NHL has complete buy-in from all involved. Other sports leagues around the planet have already shown that it can be done

In a nod to the teams that were on the bubble regarding a 2020 spring playoff invite, the league wisely chose to include 24 clubs in the post-season picture. Yes, the likes of Montreal, and Chicago, most likely would not have qualified under the normal system, but these are far from normal times, and the math works out.

16 teams will take part in a best-of-five “play-in” series beginning Saturday, August 1st. Call it what you want, but it’s the playoffs, baby. It could take a team 19 wins to grab the Cup.

In the East, Pittsburgh will play the Canadiens, Carolina will face the Rangers, the Islanders will take on Florida, while the Maple Leafs will clash with Columbus.

In the West, Edmonton and Chicago will meet up, as will Nashville and Arizona, as well as the Canucks and Wild. One of the most anticipated play-in series will pit the Jets against the Flames…the battle of the two former Atlanta teams.

The winner of each play-in series will move on to the next round, which is usually referred to as the first round. Still following?

The league abandoned its basketball-like bracket system, and wisely returned to a re-seeding after every round.

The top four teams in each respective Conference will hold a mini round-robin tournament to decide seeding, and to make sure they shake off the rust.

Let’s say the Edmonton Oilers take care of the Blackhawks in four games. They then move on to the next round, facing one of either St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, or Dallas, depending on how the other play-in series unfold.

In the East, Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia will partake in the 3-game round-robin, and await the survivors of the various play-in series.

And when we say East, we mean Toronto. The Scotiabank Arena in downtown Hogtown will be the centre of all NHL activity for the Eastern Conference.

The Western hub city is Edmonton, as Rogers Place will be ground zero for all NHL games involving Western Conference teams. And Edmonton will be where the 2020 Stanley Cup Final is played, meaning the Stanley Cup will be hoisted on Edmonton ice for the first time since Wayne Gretzky last did so in 1988.

But it could be hoisted by the hated Calgary Flames, or the rival Vancouver Canucks, or the New York Rangers, or the defending Cup champions, the St. Louis Blues. Folks, we have truly entered The Twilight Zone.

Amongst hockey fans, there was understandable skepticism, and trepidation, on whether the NHL could pull this off. While a major outbreak of COVID-19 could still derail the best-laid plans of mice and men, the league has done as complete a job as possible to mitigate such an event.

Still, there remain some fans who call into question the legitimacy of the entire affair, with many refusing to recognize these playoffs as the real thing.

Ask any player, coach, or hockey executive, and they scoff at the notion that playing hockey this summer requires an asterisk beside the accomplishments. If anything, this will be one of the more difficult Stanley Cups to capture.

For starters, almost everybody is healthy to begin the playoffs, which never occurs. Though no doubt injuries will happen during the shortened training camp, and over the course of the schedule.

The regular season was over four months ago, so can any real stock be put into the results from a third of a year ago? Everybody is starting with a fresh slate.

In a best-of-five series, expect the unexpected. You do not want to lose that first game. Winning the next three out of four, without the safety net of true home ice advantage, is not an enviable task. Can Montreal upset Pittsburgh Can Carolina finally win a game against the Rangers?

As mentioned, there is no home ice advantage, outside of last change, and similar minutia. There will be no amped-up home crowd, egging on the boys to dig deep down inside in order to summon the strength to score that game-tying goal late in the third period. That motivation will have to come strictly from the players, and to a man, they say they’re ready for it.

Having watched a lot of Major League Soccer games, as they play their tournament in Florida, it was initially jarring to view a match with no crowd. It sounded like one had stumbled across a men’s league Tuesday night game in Scarborough, Ontario. Friends, and reluctant family members only in the crowd. But the level of play was the same; once the game is underway, the players focus in on the task at hand.

The same will happen in the NHL. The Stanley Cup is up for grabs, and a record 24 teams have a shot at getting their names etched on the side of it.

Within a week of the league returning to the ice, eight of those teams will be gone. Two weeks later, another eight teams will pack away the equipment until 2020-21 training camps open up in mid-November.

Since all of us will be taking in the games from the comfort, and safety, of our living rooms, the focus will thankfully be on the games on the ice. You won’t have to worry about parking, or long lineups for the washroom, though that may depend on how big your family is.

Who are the favourites this time around? Can the Blues repeat as Stanley Cup champions? Can the Lightning move on from the sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets last spring? Heck, who’s the starting goaltender for at least ten of the teams, and how short will the leash be if a team drops the first game?

Who benefits most from the prolonged layoff? Younger players? Older players? Is there even an advantage?

What will the hockey look like once they drop the puck for real? We should all still practice social distancing whenever possible, but nobody wants to see that out on the ice. And how will the games be called by the men in stripes?

Most of these are normal playoff questions, except this time around, we’ve had over 20 weeks to consider the answers.

And after one exhibition match for each of the 24 remaining teams, the games count once again. And all of the action can be found on NHL Network Radio Channel 91. Keep it there for start times, and for where exactly individual games can be found.

Enjoy. Because it’s been a while. And Release the Kraken! And Goodbye to The Entertainer.

July 28-30: Exhibition games
August 1: Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin
August 11: Round One begins
August 25: Round Two begins
September 8: Conference Finals begin
September 22: Stanley Cup Final begins