The NHL finally kicked off its 2020-21 regular season with five games on Wednesday. Due to delays and restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a 56-game schedule with play exclusively within four temporarily realigned divisions. The league played 48-game seasons in 1995 and 2013, but that was on the heels of a lockout. This year presents bigger challenges, and there are many storylines to follow.
Looking for a taste of normalcy? The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning served up Wednesday’s least surprising result with a 5-1 home victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
In Game Three of the 2020 final versus Dallas, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos scored a huge goal in his lone playoff appearance despite being limited by injury to just 2:47 in ice time. Versus Chicago, a healthy Stamkos led the way with a goal and two assists. Meanwhile, defenceman Victor Hedman, who earned the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, chipped in two assists.
The host Lightning unveiled their championship banner but chose not to raise it to the rafters at Amalie Arena for the time being. Teams are competing in front of empty arenas, with the exception of three franchises allowing limited numbers of spectators: the Arizona Coyotes, the Dallas Stars, and the Florida Panthers.
Dallas, however, was obliged to postpone its first three games after accounting for 17 of the 27 “COVID Protocol Related Absences” announced Wednesday after the conclusion of training camps. The NHL did daily testing between 30 December and 11 January, with about 12,000 tests conducted on more than 1,200 players.
Fortunately, there are also some happier numbers for fans to track this season.
Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks sits just 44 games shy of Gordie Howe’s all-time NHL record (1,767) and the 41-year-old forward, who is also 50th in all-time NHL points (1,188), could well break the mark if he remains healthy and productive.
Crosby (985 games) is one of several iconic NHLers projected to join the 1,000-game club this season. Others include Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals (956 games), Chicago’s Patrick Kane (974 games) and Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadiens (991 games).
When the Toronto Maple Leafs edged the Canadiens 5-4 in overtime, Morgan Rielly played the hero with the winner in the first game in the all-Canadian North Division. Yet it was William Nylander, the 2017 IIHF World Championship MVP with Sweden’s gold-medal team, who dominated offensively (2+1=3). Leafs captain John Tavares also had a three-point night (1+2=3).
“We’re just grateful to be playing,” Rielly said. “We’re going to have the most fun with it we can.”
This season, Amazon Prime is collaborating with the NHL on a behind-the-scenes reality series entitled “All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs.” It’ll document Toronto’s quest to win its first Stanley Cup since 1967 and break a Cup drought north of the U.S. border that dates back to the 1993 Canadiens.
Marleau’s longtime San Jose teammate, Joe Thornton (14th in league scoring with 1,509 points), made his Leafs debut and went pointless. Thornton, 41, did not apply the “all or nothing” precept to his famous beard, which is now (relatively) neatly trimmed.
Some younger players who shone not so long ago in World Junior competition lit up the scoreboard on Day One. The U.S.’s Joel Farabee, a 2019 World Junior silver medalist, grabbed the early NHL scoring lead with four points for the Flyers.
“He was strong at both ends of the rink, strong on the puck, and made some nice plays,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said of the 20-year-old Hoglander. “Very happy with his game.”
The NHL could witness an competitive rookie of the year race in 2021.
Alexis Lafreniere of the New York Rangers won World Junior MVP honours with Canada’s 2020 gold-medal team. Kirill Kaprizov of the Minnesota Wild, previously with CSKA Moscow, has finally made the jump to the NHL at age 23, and he will aim to make more history after scoring the 2018 Olympic gold medal-winning goal versus Germany. Rangers goalie Igor Shestyorkin and Canadiens defenceman Alexander Romanov are other potential Russian contenders.
Other intriguing storylines include veteran faces in new places, like Zdeno Chara in Washington, Alex Pietrangelo in Vegas, and Taylor Hall and Eric Staal in Buffalo. Outdoor games at Lake Tahoe are scheduled for 20 February (Colorado vs. Vegas) and 21 February (Philadelphia vs. Vegas). And Marleau, Weber, and Matt Duchene of the Nashville Predators can join the Triple Gold Club if one of them captures his first Stanley Cup as late as 9 July.
Coming off a supremely challenging year in 2020, NHLers want to put on a great show for the fans in 2021 while remaining as safe and healthy as possible. Hopefully the wildest events will be similar to Tampa Bay’s quintuple-overtime 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets to open the first round of the 2020 playoffs. Stay tuned. We are living in interesting times.