Hockey is back.
So much time has passed – and so much change – in the 142 days between important National Hockey League games that it feels like an entirely new season rather than a resumption of 2019-20.
Here’s a reminder, along with 10 storylines to follow during this sprint for Lord Stanley as the NHL hits play out on Saturday after a historic break:
1. Bring Stanley home: With the Stanley Cup being played in full Canada for the first time in 95 years, how many of Canada’s six clubs will advance to qualifying? The maximum is five, with one of the Flames or Jets to be eliminated in five or less, but none have had a guaranteed chance to end the 27-year drought.
2. Lose for Lafreniere: Given the commitment to testing, protocol and life in the bubble, no team will be happy with a five-game presentation in Toronto or Edmonton. But a shot of 12.5% on the No. 1 choice in the general classification and Alexis Lafrenière is a sacred consolation prize. Teams are expected to finish in 30th place over a full 82-game season for those chances. The second phase of the NHL Draft Lottery will take place on August 10.
3. Baby Boosters: Five players from the gold medal-winning 2020 Canadian junior team make the return-to-play list: captain Barrett Hayton (Arizona), Bowen Byram (Colorado), Ty Dellandrea (Dallas), Liam Foudy (Columbus) and Connor McMichael (Washington). Toronto’s Foudy, Byram, McMichael and Nick Robertson make the jump from the CHL. Philip Broberg of Edmonton, 19, is also knocking on the door to a spot in the Oil’s top six after playing in Sweden this season.
4. No home cooking: Bubble Life will bring the purest experience to date on the benefits of the home ice perk. Historically, the home team has a .575 (2393-1774) winning percentage in Stanley Cup playoff games. In addition, the home side have enjoyed a 1,042-less penalty advantage than the road side over the past three regular seasons, according to The Athletic. We’ll soon find out the impact of missing devout fans in buildings, which could also hurt the intensity of the game – while the broadcast microphones pick up everything.
5. Do you remember these guys? Acquisitions with commercial expiry dates only had two weeks to acclimate before the NHL hiatus. Don’t be surprised when you see these guys on the scoresheet with their new clubs: Tyler Toffoli (Vancouver), Andreas Athanasiou (Edmonton), Cody Eakin and Dylan DeMelo (Winnipeg), Jason Zucker (Pittsburgh), Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Andy Greene (Islanders), Robin Lehner and Alec Martinez (Vegas), Ondrej Kase (Boston), Erik Haula (Florida), Ilya Kovalchuk and Brenden Dillon (Washington), Patrick Marleau and Conor Sheary (Pittsburgh), Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow (Tampa Bay), with Vincent Trocheck, Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen and Caroline.
6. Take out the brooms? There are eight juicy best of five appearances in the qualifying round, the first five-game NHL streak in over 34 years. The last time there was a five-game streak, in 1986, six of those eight games ended with three-game sweeps. Nearly half of the best five – 27 of 56 – series held between 1980 and 1986 ended in a sweep.
7. Information trick: Unlike the NBA, the NHL has no independent media inside the bubble. Media are not permitted to view morning practices or skates, and teams have the option to skip morning skating media availability until the conference finals. The NHL has previously cracked down on injury reports out of respect for medical privacy laws with COVID-19. But will the NHL-endorsed news feed leave fans well-informed in the dark about changes and developments until the puck lets go of every game?
8. The friendliest playoffs ever? The Stanley Cup Playoffs are legendary for the healthy hatred that rises with each series. It’s one of hockey’s great business cards. But with players sharing common spaces while staying at the same hotels in the bubble, there’s a chance that this once-in-a-lifetime elimination race won’t be the same. One player described the scene at his Toronto hotel as a “minor hockey tournament with alcohol”. Will there be a record for the fewest fights or suspensions? Will hockey be less hectic? Without the energy provided by home crowds, will players be calmer? We will see.
9. Fashion Forward: The NHL has done away with its traditional button-down dress code for these most unusual playoffs. Prepare your popcorn. Gamers will have the opportunity to express themselves in a way we’ve never seen before and fans are ready to gobble up their new social media threads.
10. The David Ayres effect: With no way to replace goalkeepers in the bubble, even when injured, more teams have four goalies (13) than three goalies (11) in their roster of 31 players. There are also a number of tantalizing tandems where the bona fide starter remains to be determined: Mike Smith/Mikko Koskinen (Edmonton), David Rittich/Cam Talbot (Calgary), Elvis Merzlikins/Joonas Korpisalo (Colomb), Saros Hair/Pekka Rinne (Nashville), Matt Murray/Tristan jarry (Pittsburgh), plus Marc-André Fleury figures to have a relatively short leash in Vegas with Lehner on the bench. Then again, all of the leashes could be short in a five-game series.
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli