Is this going to work?
It is the dominant and lingering question that hangs over everything. The bottom line: The NHL is trying to play games in the middle of a pandemic. Most of the players arrived in Toronto and Edmonton from cities across the United States – where cases continue to rise – on Sunday and Monday, just days before the first games.
MLS also arrived in its central environment days (as opposed to weeks) before games, and two teams quickly experienced outbreaks and withdrew.
This begs the question the MLB wrestles with after its Miami Marlins also experienced an outbreak: When should the season end?
On Monday, the NHL announced no positive tests among players last week. The just concluded Phase 2, where each team trained in their home market, was seen as the riskiest part of the NHL’s comeback.
In the future, everyone inside the bubbles will be tested daily via a nasal swab. If players test positive, those who are asymptomatic will be isolated until two negative tests are returned within 48 hours, or after 10 days. Symptomatic positives can join their team after 72 hours without symptoms as well as at least 10 days in isolation.
WATCH | Rob Pizzo presents Flames vs. Jets:
In Toronto, the top five seeds can be found at Hotel X, near the shores of the lake, while the others stay at the Fairmont Royal York, near the Scotiabank Arena. BMO Field will also be enabled for players, with the caveat that certain shoes must be worn in order to preserve the Toronto FC field. In Edmonton, the best teams are at the JW Marriott, which connects to the arena, with the rest at nearby Sutton Place.
Each team brought together 52 people, including 30 players. There are 14 restaurants and food vendors available to players at each hub, including Tim Hortons. Player facilities in both cities include a swimming pool, table tennis, basketball and football courts, and lounges.
Players have their own rooms and are not allowed to mingle with others. Outside of your bedroom, masks should be worn at all times, unless you are participating in some physical activity. Families will be allowed to join the final two rounds – both of which will be held in Edmonton for everyone.
Meanwhile, the presentation on ice will be quite different. The NHL is adding 12 cameras to provide new angles and will use crowd noise from EA Sports NHL video games. The lower bowl seats will be covered with a tarp while giant LED screens with team graphics and / or fan videos will be placed directly behind the benches.
WATCH | Rob Pizzo presents the Oilers vs. the Blackhawks:
Twelve teams from each conference are involved. A third of them will not be for very long. The best of five Stanley Cup playoffs, pitting the seeds 5 against 12, 6 against 11, 7 against 10 and 8 against 9 begins Saturday.
The winners of these series advance to the playoffs, where it’s the best of the usual seven in each round. Instead of the division-centric format of years past, the NHL opts for conference-wide rankings. This means # 1 plays # 8, # 2 plays # 7, etc.
While qualifying is contested, the top four seeds from each conference will participate in a round robin tournament to determine the top four seeds for the first round of the playoffs. These standings will use the regular season point system, with ties being broken by pre-break performance.
After the first round, the teams are reseeded so that the best remaining team in each conference always plays the worst.
WATCH | Rob Pizzo presents the Leafs against the Blue Jackets:
For the eight teams that lose qualifying, there is a silver lining. The NHL began its draft lottery in June while only knowing seven of the 15 teams involved. These are the teams that have already been eliminated and have the best odds. The other eight slots were held by “reserved spaces”, each of them assigning decreasing odds.
In classic NHL fashion, a placeholder team won the lottery, where QMJHL star Alexis Lafrenière is expected to be picked first overall. Now, the eight losers in qualifying will share a 12.5% equal chance of winning this rather large consolation prize in Phase 2 of the lottery after qualifying.
WATCH | Rob Pizzo presents the Canadiens vs. the Penguins:
Ottawa was the only Canadian club to miss qualifying, while Montreal barely took 12th – eight points behind the Rangers, and just three over the Buffalo Sabers. The Canadiens’ award is a date with the Sidney Crosby Penguins.
The only all-Canadian clash is in the west with the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets, both in the midst of slightly disappointing seasons. The Vancouver Canucks, a young team that had put together an impressive campaign, face the Wild, an older team that began to follow the trend after head coach Bruce Boudreau was replaced by assistant Dean Evason .
The Edmonton Oilers, along with Connor McDavid and MVP finalist Leon Draisaitl, face 12th seed Chicago. This team has fought over the past few years, but they maintain the power and experience of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
One of the consequences of the new format is that it stole the Battle of Alberta from us, a game that likely appeared in March.
Back in the east, the Toronto Maple Leafs face the Columbus Blue Jackets, who upset the seeded Tampa Bay Lightning last year. Toronto struggled in a regular season up and down where it failed to live up to expectations.
But beating Columbus for his young core’s first series victory might just be the boost he needs. On the other hand, the Leafs might just meet the Bruins in the next round – and we all know what happens next.
WATCH | Rob Pizzo presents Canucks vs. Wild:
Will good teams always be good?
This one is largely unanswered. But 4 and a half months after the last game, can we expect the teams to pick up where they left off? The ‘rest versus rust’ debate will surely make a comeback, and players’ fitness, especially early on, will be examined – who was the type of quarantine to watch Tiger King (remember?), And who transformed his house in a Gym?
A few more storylines around the league: Can the Lightning bounce back from last year’s early exit? What kind of title defense can the Blues put together? How random will these short qualifying series be? Will we see another Crosby-Ovechkin battle?
I hope we will have the answers to all these questions soon.