The hockey world has been turned on its head, and then flipped back up again, and then knocked over one more time. It is slowly recovering from a COVID-19 pandemic pause, then season cancellation, then the first phase of the draft lottery, then the 24-team postseason play-in, then the second phase of the draft lottery, then the first round of the postseason, then a player-led boycott, and now sees itself nearing the end of the second round.
It has been a wild ride for players, coaches, managers, team officials, arena/hotel staff, reporters, coordinators, and every other possible person involved in the National Hockey League’s return to play.
Operating out of the two hub city bubbles of Toronto and Edmonton, the players still currently involved in the NHL’s playoffs have been living out of the same hotel now for 35 days – yes, that would qualify as an extended stay… Families have gone on with life without boyfriends, fathers, husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and grandsons. Life has changed dramatically for those in the hockey world.
Following the absurd realities of playoff-bound teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets bounced from the Qualifying Round play-in following losses to the Montreal Canadiens, Columbus Blue Jackets and Calgary Flames, respectively – who have now each been eliminated prior to the beginning of the second round, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are now more than ever, anybody’s ‘ball-game’.
Division leaders St. Louis and Washington have already fallen out of the picture in the first round, while fellow leaders Colorado, Philadelphia and Boston find themselves behind the eight-ball now midway through the second round. With Vegas (Vancouver), Dallas (Colorado), Tampa Bay (Boston) and the New York Islanders (Philadelphia) holding 3-1 series leads over their opponents after just four second round games, each of the Canucks, Avalanche, Lighting and Flyers are looking at three-straight victories in order to make it to the Conference Finals.
With Eastern Conference teams in Toronto having to pack up and move to Edmonton for the Conference Finals (and the potential Stanley Cup Final), the incentive to also possibly have some family members travel to Alberta to join the players remains as a very slight possibility.
Prior to Thursday and Friday’s player-led Black Lives Matter game boycott, the league was on pace to wrap up the postseason in advance of the originally scheduled October 1 date. With obvious flexibility, based on the recommendation of public health and governing bodies within the local regions, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman concluded that the game scheduling staff would aim to have all Stanley Cup Final contests wrapped up by the first day of October, giving a slight period of rest and evaluation prior to the October 9/10 2020 NHL Entry Draft, held virtually.
Making things easier for Bettman and Co. is the fact that the opening round of the postseason did not see any series’ require seven games. As a matter of fact, only three of the eight matchups required six games. Now, nearing the conclusion of the second round, all four series’ see teams either ahead or trailing by a 3-1 count, potentially featuring another round without a Game 7. Should this be the case, the prevailing teams will be able to shave off another 2-3 days of their stay within the bubble.
With obvious time allotted for travel between the hub cities, as the Eastern Conference teams move west for the upcoming Conference Finals and beyond, the league has allowed additional time between the end of the second round and beginning of the third. That, however, may change based on the teams involved and their efforts in wrapping up series’ quicker than anticipated. Less games equals less time in the bubble, equals a quicker return home to family.
With two games scheduled for Monday (Tampa Bay vs. Boston, Dallas vs. Colorado) and another two set for Tuesday (Vegas vs. Vancouver, New York vs. Philadelphia) this consideration will only become clearer as time moves on. With zero COVID-19 positive tests since official testing began at the start of the Qualifying Round, the NHL hub city bubbles continue to be a hotspot for hockey, while maintaining their goal of being one of the safest places in the world for coronavirus avoidance.