The Morning Call (Sunday)

Like ‘56 playoff games’

NHL embarking on sprint of a season with all divisional play

- By Stephen Whyno

The NHLhas started seasons of fewer than 82 games in January and played into the summer to award the Stanley Cup.

Just not like this.

When the puck drops on the regular season in five rinks Jan. 13, it will be the start of a 56-game sprint to the playoffs with all divisional play until the semifinals. That will ramp up the rivalries, reduce travel during the pandemic and makethis a once-in-a-lifetime chase for a title.

“We’re going to see a 56-game season, but it’ll be 56 playoff games,” veteran Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “It’s exciting. I think the divisions the way they’re in front of us, it’ll be great for the fans and I think the players will enjoy it, also, so I think the rivalries will just raise to a level wehaven’t seen in a long, long time.”

If hockey can navigate the perils of the virus like other sports. Already three teams have been affected, with the Stars unable to start the season on time

Fans won’t be able to watch in person at the beginning except in a handful of U.S. Sun Belt markets. The Lightning on Saturday reversed course on beginning the season with a limited capacity of 3,800 in the arena that’s also hosting the NBA’s Raptors, citing the recent rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitaliz­ations in the area. Teams will play every division rival at least eight times, often consecutiv­ely like a baseball-style schedule.

Thatinclud­es a never-before-seen all-Canadian North Division because of border restrictio­ns. Four teams from each of the four divisions make the playoffs and play it out until there are four left in contention for the Cup by the start of summer.

“It’s going to be a wacky year playing teams back-to-backs and playing the same team kind of repetitive­ly,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “It’s going to be different than anything we’ve dealt with.”

Far different than completing the 2019-20 season in quarantine­d bubbles in Canada with the Lightning winningit all. Being out in the world means coaches in masks behind the bench, no venturing outside the hotel andarena onthe road, and six months of pure hockey in the hopes of avoiding the kind of teamwideou­tbreaks that have already hit the Stars and have others on edge.

“You don’t want to bring the virus into the locker room, and if it is, you want to doyour job of eliminatin­g it as soon as possible,” Blues forward Brayden Schenn said. “I think the team that at the end of the day is going to be the smartest off ice is going to have the best chance to win because I think that’s going to limit players going down with the virus.”

Theschedul­eandprotoc­ols weredesign­edwith that in mind. If they workandmos­tifnotall games go on as scheduled, it could improve the quality of play.

“Not having to travel (as much), just kind of getting settled in one place and playing a team a couple times could kind of increase the rivalry aspect,” three-time Cup-winning Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “The product will probably be the best it can be.”

Much of that depends on goaltendin­g, with each team likely relying on more than just its starter given the condensed schedule. Coaching will also be different.

 ?? JASON FRANSON/AP ?? Lightning’s Steven Stamkos is presented the Stanley Cup from NHL commission­er Gary Bettman on Sept. 28 in Edmonton.
JASON FRANSON/AP Lightning’s Steven Stamkos is presented the Stanley Cup from NHL commission­er Gary Bettman on Sept. 28 in Edmonton.

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