Sports

NHL return-to-play update – Game schedule, injury news, lingering ‘bubble’ questions


It has been 137 days since the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season because of the coronavirus pandemic … and we’re now five days away from the start of the 24-team postseason tournament to determine the 2020 Stanley Cup champion.

As players, coaches, broadcasters and fans look ahead to the beginning of the qualification round on Saturday, there are a number of lingering questions regarding life in the bubble, how the games will look and much more. Get caught up on all of it here.

More: See the full postseason schedule here.

We have games coming! How can I watch them?

Emily Kaplan: Get ready for Stanley Cup playoff hockey like you’ve never seen it before — quite literally. The NHL is restarting in two hub cities (Toronto for the Eastern Conference and Edmonton, Alberta, for the Western Conference), and the league has taken full advantage of fan-less arenas to create a television spectacle. This should be an interesting case study for anyone who has argued that hockey is better consumed in person and that it’s difficult to follow on a screen. Typically, 20 cameras are used for an NHL broadcast. In this summer’s tournament, there will be 32 cameras per game, and you’ll be able to see game action angles of which you might have only dreamed.

Even better: It’s going to be March Madness-style, nonstop action the first week. There will be three games per day in each hub city, staggered in two-hours-apart time zones, which means that starting at noon ET, we could have upwards of 15 straight hours of hockey each day. It all begins Saturday.

NBC is the NHL’s U.S. TV partner. Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 5, NBC Sports will present coverage of at least four games each day across NBC, NBCSN and USA Network. That includes some games that will be joined in-progress.

What if I bought NHL Center Ice or the NHL.TV streaming package?

Kaplan: From Aug. 1 through Aug. 5, 21 games will be available on NHL Center Ice or streamed on NHL.TV, though local blackouts will apply. Remember, because the qualification round is an extension of the regular season, these games will be broadcast on local regional sports networks.

The NHL says it will announce additional games after Aug. 5 “if available.”

Refresh me on the tournament format and the matchups.

Greg Wyshynski: When the NHL paused its season on March 12, teams had between 11 and 14 games remaining on their schedules. Because the playoff races around the wild-card bubbles were so tight, the decision was made to expand the playoffs to 24 teams. The NHL and the players agreed to restart the season in two hub cities, with 12 Eastern Conference teams heading to Toronto and 12 Western Conference teams heading to Edmonton to play games in arenas without fans.

There will be exhibition games from July 28 to July 30, just one per team. The “qualification round” of the postseason finds the top four teams in each conference playing one another in a round-robin. Teams asked for games that “matter” to help them prepare for later rounds. At stake is playoff seeding, as the current fourth-place teams could jump to first place with three wins. The East teams, by seed: (1) Boston Bruins, (2) Tampa Bay Lightning, (3) Washington Capitals and (4) Philadelphia Flyers. The Western Conference: (1) St. Louis Blues, (2) Colorado Avalanche, (3) Vegas Golden Knights and (4) Dallas Stars.

The rest of the teams are playing best-of-five playoff series for the right to advance to the traditional round-of-16 Stanley Cup tournament. The teams in the round-robin and the qualification round will be reseeded before the quarterfinals.

The four best-of-five series of the qualifiers in the Eastern Conference: No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens; No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers; No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers; No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets.

The four best-of-five series of the qualifiers in the Western Conference: No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks; No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes; No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild; No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets.

Any injury updates from the past week?

Kaplan: We got a lot of clarity, as teams had to submit their final 31-player rosters to the NHL on Friday. First, some good news in Chicago: Starting goaltender Corey Crawford, who has been out and “unfit to play” for all of training camp, is traveling with the team to Edmonton. Crawford revealed to reporters that he tested positive for COVID-19 and was quarantining at home in Chicago.

“The first few days that I started feeling symptoms, that was the hardest,” Crawford said in a video call. “The last couple weeks, maybe a little bit more, was a little bit easier. But I still couldn’t really do much in case there was something wrong with my lungs or my heart, so we had to get that checked out first before I really started pushing in the gym or come on the ice.”

The Blackhawks are hoping that Crawford can be ready for their qualification-round series against Edmonton — and the high-scoring duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook, however, isn’t on the playoff roster. Seabrook says he doesn’t feel comfortable enough after undergoing surgeries to his left hip, right hip and right shoulder in the span of two months earlier this year.

Capitals backup goalie Ilya Samsonov isn’t going to be available this summer. He’s rehabbing an injury that he sustained before the restart, though Washington says he should be healthy for the 2020-21 season — when he’s expected to take over the starting role from pending free agent Braden Holtby. That leaves Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek as the Caps’ options behind Holtby this summer.

Star rookie defenseman Cale Makar returned to Avalanche practice on Saturday in a noncontact jersey after several days of being “unfit to play.” He is expected to travel with his team to the bubble. The Coyotes got a scare when captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson left Friday’s intrasquad scrimmage with an apparent injury, but coach Rick Tocchet told reporters that he doesn’t think it’s anything serious.

One exhibition match I’ll be keeping an eye on is Tampa Bay versus Florida on Wednesday. That’s because Lightning captain Steven Stamkos hasn’t skated a full practice with the regulars during training camp. His presence in the exhibition game could indicate if he’s ready to go for round-robin play.

Wyshynski: The NHL hoped that the quarantine exceptions given to players and coaches could be extended to others, but Bettman said last week that he and Daly would have to remain in their hotel rooms like everyone else crossing the border.

“Bill and I have actually put ourselves on the back burner because we don’t have the requisite approvals to enter Canada or the bubble without a 14-day quarantine,” Bettman said Friday during a media conference. “We also have an open question as to whether or not an owner or a senior executive of a club can come in and watch the games from outside the bubble. Those are questions that are still evolving.”

Any lingering questions about the bubble?

Kaplan: The NHL got a decent scare when a storm rolled through Edmonton on July 16 and caused flooding and damage to Rogers Place. After assessing, NHL officials say the arena is good to go for next week’s games. Crisis averted.

Many have wondered what the ice conditions will be like at each of the arenas. The NHL has never played this late in the summer, and humid weather usually means choppy ice. However, NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell said he’s confident that it won’t be an issue.

“The real problem is when the doors open in a facility and the fans come in, with their body heat,” Campbell said. “We have no concerns about the ice conditions, and we’ve talked with our ice guys in depth about this.”

Another issue on which we’re awaiting clarity: Players’ families were supposed to join them in the hub cities by the conference finals. That’s something the players asked for in negotiations with the league. However, the NHL says it is still working out how that will work and what levels of quarantine and contact tracing will be needed to integrate a wave of new people into the bubble.

There seem to be a lot of group activities in the bubbles. How is the NHL handling social distancing with players?

Wyshynski: Among the amenities that received the most attention in Phase 4 were the player lounges, which include everything from video games to pool tables to TVs where they can (in theory) watch their opponents in action. The lounges also include restaurants where players can congregate and grab a steak dinner. Considering that these kinds of places are closed or restricted in many cities across North America, will the players keep social distancing standards?

“They are so social distanced,” said Steve Mayer, NHL chief content officer and senior executive VP of events and entertainment. “There are player lounges, but you have to see how it’s laid out. Social distancing, wearing masks, it’s all taken into account. A table that typically seats six now seats three. A table for four is a table for two. We’ve had a restaurant [in Edmonton] that’s been open for 10 days for us. It normally seats about 140 people, and its capacity is now 60. We’re being super-over-exaggerated in some ways. And I don’t know how the players are going to react to that. Are they going to be used to it already? It’s an acquired taste, but we are going to hammer it home. After a while, you get it.”

How much input on “bubble life” did the players have?

Wyshynski: We were all really surprised by how collaborative the NHL and the NHLPA were throughout this process, but that was bred by necessity. That vibe continued in creating life inside the bubbles. There were Zoom calls with a small group of players who offered their input.

“We’ve been meeting with the players pretty regularly since this was all announced, and their input was pretty regular. We have an open communication that they’ve taken advantage of,” said Mayer, who gave his personal contact info to players in order to continue conversations. “They’ve been awesome. They make suggestions. And now they’re asking questions about getting laundry done in their hotels. They certainly had a voice, and we think we listened.”

Each player is receiving a 60-page handbook in his hotel room that details everything about bubble life, from maps to amenities. This is starting to sound like a destination wedding. Will there also be a bag at the front desk with a bottle of water, snacks and Advil?

Finally, what’s your pop culture addiction this week?

Kaplan: I’m just proud of my Champions League-bound Chelsea Blues. What a brilliant two-minute stretch at the end of the first half Sunday to clinch a big win over the Wolves.

Wyshynski: I’ve been binging some game shows I like (“The Chase,” which is on Netflix and a ton of fun) and some movies I’ve missed (“Uncut Gems,” probably the best movie that will ever be made featuring both Idina Menzel and Kevin Garnett). But much of my free time has been spent with the dozen incarnations of “90 Day Fiancé,” TV’s unlikeliest franchise of spin-offs that all manage their own special level of cringe.



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