Normal? No, the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs will not be normal. Not quite.
The coronavirus pandemic is not over.
But there are signs normalcy is returning, like green shoots in spring.
Sixteen teams. Four rounds of best-of-7 series. Teams playing at home or traveling to their opponents’ cities. Fans in the stands, at least to varying degrees in the United States. COVID-19 protocols relaxed, at least for teams with 85 percent of the traveling party fully vaccinated.
Starting with the Boston Bruins at the Washington Capitals on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, CBC, TVAS), this will not be like the 2020 postseason, a 24-team tournament played with no fans in attendance in bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.
“I think last year was kind of a change for all of us,” said Capitals defenseman Zdeno Chara, a 23-season NHL veteran who spent the previous 14 seasons with the Bruins. “We obviously had to make some adjustments going into the bubbles.
“I think this year feels a little bit more natural and back to normal. As the fans are back in the buildings, it feels even better, and I think it’s close to being what it was in the past. Obviously, it’s not going to be sold-out arenas, but it’s nice to have somewhat of filled arenas with the fans and being kind of in your own home environment.”
There are intriguing twists too.
The format guarantees a Canada-based team will make the Stanley Cup Semifinals, and the NHL hopes Canada will allow travel across the border without quarantine by then. No Canada-based team has made the Final since the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Bruins in seven games in 2011 or won the Cup since the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Los Angeles Kings in five games in 1993.
The format also has generated compelling matchups in the Stanley Cup First Round like the Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, Original Six rivals who haven’t met in the playoffs since 1979, and the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, who have never met in the playoffs even though Tampa Bay joined the NHL in 1992-93 and Florida joined the following season.
“It’s been a different regular season, for sure,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “Our most immediate goal is to get through the regular season and then worry about the playoffs. But I think the playoffs are going to be fantastic. They typically are. I think the clubs are ready to get there and get them started, and I think you’re going to have some fabulous matchups. Obviously the one that jumps out immediately is the Battle of Florida. Really looking forward to seeing that.”
For more than a year, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association have had to adapt to immense challenges on the fly.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman paused the 2019-20 season March 12, 2020, with no playbook on how to return safely. The NHL and the NHLPA worked throughout a 4 ½-month pause to come up with a format and protocols to finish the season and award the Stanley Cup.
The bubbles were a success. Not only was there two months of thrilling made-for-TV hockey from Aug. 1-Sept. 28 culminating in a championship for Tampa Bay, there were no positives out of 33,174 COVID-19 tests to team personnel.
But the pandemic continued, with different situations from city to city and country to country, including quarantine requirements after crossing the border from the United States into Canada.
It wasn’t practical to put players in bubbles for the entire season, so the NHL and the NHLPA had to come up with another format and adjust the protocols, accepting the possibility of disruptions and delays.
The NHL realigned temporarily, with three divisions in the United States and one in Canada, with each team playing a 56-game schedule within its division. Sure enough, from the start Jan. 13, there were disruptions and delays.
In many ways, it was a long, shortened regular season.
Actually, it still is. Although the playoffs open Saturday in the United States, four regular-season games remain in the Scotia North Division in Canada. After the Vancouver Canucks play at the Calgary Flames in the finale May 19, the Winnipeg Jets will play at the Edmonton Oilers to open the playoffs in the division that night.
But in other ways, the regular season has been a triumph — a triumph over adversity, yes, but a triumph, period.
The format has fueled intense rivalries, and there have been historic individual performances. Oilers center Connor McDavid has 104 points (33 goals, 71 assists) in 55 games. His 1.89 points per game is the highest rate since Mario Lemieux’s 2.30 in 1995-96. Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews has 41 goals in 51 games. His 0.80 goals per game is the highest rate since Lemieux’s 0.81 in 2000-01.
And now comes the best part: the playoffs.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the players for all they’ve done and all they’ve sacrificed to make this season successful, and obviously that’s going to happen throughout the playoffs as well,” Daly said. “They’ve been really good in terms of helping us get to this point, and now we’ll get to the finish line.”
NHL.com staff writer Tom Gulitti contributed to this column