The NHL returns to the ice Saturday after a 4 1/2-month pause because of the coronavirus pandemic, with 24 of its 31 teams playing in two hub cities. There will be as many as six games on TV per day, but no fans in attendance at either Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, or Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
The Ducks and Kings will be absent, having finished outside the top 24, but the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues could stage a rematch of their nerve-jangling Stanley Cup Final of last year. No matter the champion, the Cup will be awarded on Canadian ice for the first time in nine years.
Welcome to NHL summer hockey, a first in its long and occasionally mixed-up history.
Play resumed with a series of exhibition games earlier this week, and the return of Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Alex Ovechkin, Carey Price, and the other stars of the game was enough to drive TV ratings in Canada through the roof.
It’s likely to be a tougher sell south of the border, what with Major League Baseball and the NBA underway and the NFL primed for its start. The sports marketplace is going to be more crowded than it’s ever been at this time of the year, and it’s all because of the coronavirus.
Naturally, you’ve got questions.
We’ve got the answers.
WHAT IS THE RETURN TO PLAY FORMAT?
Best-of-5 qualifying games begin Saturday.
In the Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh (No. 5 seed) vs. Montreal (12); Carolina (6) vs. New York Rangers (11); New York Islanders (7) vs. Florida (10); Toronto (8) vs. Columbus (9). In the Western Conference: Edmonton (5) vs. Chicago (12); Nashville (6) vs. Arizona (11); Vancouver (7) vs. Minnesota (10); Calgary (8) vs. Winnipeg (9).
While those qualifying series are contested, the top four teams in each conference when play was suspended March 12 will play three round-robin games apiece to determine the final seedings. In the East: Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia. In the West: St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas. The playoffs will then proceed in a typical four-round, best-of-7 format.
The conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final will be played in Edmonton.
WHO ARE THE STANLEY CUP FAVORITES?
Boston (44-14-12) had the best record in the East when play was halted and St. Louis (42-19-10) had the top mark in the West. The Blues defeated the Bruins last season in seven games in the Final, and it’s not far-fetched to imagine a rematch. However, anyone who claims to know how this unprecedented 24-team tournament will play out is either a liar or a fool. Or maybe wise. A hot goaltender could hoist an underdog on his back and lead it to a championship. Could a Canadian team win the nation’s first Stanley Cup title since Montreal in 1993?
Even something as crazy as that could happen.
HOW WERE THE HUB CITIES SELECTED?
The NHL picked Edmonton and Toronto out of 10 finalists, including Staples Center in Los Angeles. Unlike the United States, Canada has controlled the coronavirus and cases there are comparatively few as the curve has been flattened over weeks and months of strict medical guidelines in the country. The league simply felt safer in Canada and took that route in its Return to Play.
WHAT WILL LIFE BE LIKE IN THE BUBBLE?
Teams will be housed in secure zones in Edmonton and Toronto, living apart from the general populace in each city for the duration of the playoffs. Players, coaches and staff members will stay in one of two hotels in each city. Teams will practice and play games without fans in attendance and with media members kept far away. There will be opportunities for leisure activities, including golf and tennis. Meals will be supplied from carefully selected and monitored restaurants. Testing will be frequent. There were no positive tests reported as teams entered their secure zones Monday.
DO EDMONTON AND TORONTO HAVE AN EDGE?
It’s tough to say. Each team would be considered an underdog heading into the playoffs under normal circumstances. They certainly won’t be able to get a boost from their rabid fan bases since fans won’t be allowed into the arenas. There will be pressure for the Oilers and Maple Leafs to win, though. Edmonton last won the Stanley Cup in 1990. The Maple Leafs haven’t won since 1967, when the NHL was only six teams.
WHAT HAPPENS IF A PLAYER TESTS POSITIVE?
Several players tested positive and recovered during the NHL’s 4-1/2-month pause, most notably Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs. One positive test won’t be enough to shut down the playoffs, but it could prove troubling because of the fear of a spread throughout a team. A player who tests positive will be quarantined and kept away from his teammates while he’s treated for the coronavirus.
WHAT HAPPENS IF THERE’S AN OUTBREAK?
That’s the nightmare scenario Major League Baseball (no bubble) has already faced with the Miami Marlins and Major League Soccer (bubble) enoucntered with teams from Dallas and Nashville. Marlins games were postponed through the weekend while MLB decided what to do next. MLS simply sent Dallas and Nashville home from its tournament in Orlando, Florida, carrying on without them.
CAN THE NHL ACTUALLY PULL THIS OFF?
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE DUCKS AND KINGS?
While the players have scattered to make the best of their extended vacations, Ducks general manager Bob Murray and Kings counterpart Rob Blake have been busy preparing for 2020-21 and beyond, signing draft picks and re-signing free agents. The Ducks will pick sixth in the NHL draft, tentatively set for Oct. 9-10, and the Kings will have the second selection, two more chances for the rebuilding teams to restock their rosters for the future. The date for the opening of free agency hasn’t been announced, but will likely follow the draft by a week or so. Additionally, although nothing has been announced, it’s expected that training camps for next season could start as early as Nov. 17 and the regular season could begin Dec. 1. Much depends on what happens over the next two months and whether the coronavirus is in retreat or continuing to spread heading into the fall and winter.