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In a perfect world, we’d all be catching our breath right now after three scintillating rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, reflecting on all the usual twists and turns associated with the two-month hockey joyride that began in early April. The field would be narrowed down to just two remaining contenders. Beards would be long, fuses would be short and emotions would be high.
Of course, we’re living in a world that’s anything but perfect. And the NHL season, which came to a halt on March 12, remains on indefinite pause owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But all that may be about to change. A framework has emerged for a return-to-play scenario, one that will involve a whopping 24 of the league’s 31 teams getting a chance to sip from the silver chalice later this summer.
To all those suggesting this wouldn’t be the same, you’re right. It’s going to be even better.
Forget this nonsense about the winning team requiring an asterisk next to their name, which I’ve heard in many circles from people who only seem to be happy when they’re unhappy. Fact is, the hardest trophy to win in pro sports is going to be more than elusive than ever. And, I’d suggest, mean more than ever to both the champion and their fan base given these uncertain times.
A bigger field means that two-thirds of the teams will actually have to win five rounds instead of the usual four if they want to be the last one standing. Only the top four clubs in each conference will get a pass to the traditional round of 16, while everyone else will have to first win a "play-in" best-of-five series.
There will be no true home-ice advantage, given that all games are going to be played in empty venues in hub cities. And the playing field will be the most level in history. All this time off has given the majority of players an opportunity to heal from the various ailments acquired during the grind of a regular season, including some who may have otherwise been done for the year under normal scheduling.
For example, veteran Jets centre Bryan Little could be ready to go after suffering what was thought to be a season-ending ear and head injury last November after being struck by an errant Nikolaj Ehlers slapshot.
"I think it would be a great playoff run since everybody’s rested and hopefully healthy," Jets winger Patrik Laine said Friday in a Zoom call, repeating a sentiment I’ve heard from numerous players and coaches over the past couple months.
Yes, this greatly discounts the importance of the regular season, aside from the seven sad-sack squads who won’t make the cut. Nobody is suggesting this becomes the new normal, but rather a unique one-off given the current climate. It’s the product of weeks of back-and-forth discussion between league executives and player reps, and I dare say it’s an ideal solution to a less-than-ideal situation.
Provided it can be done in a safe manner for all involved — details of that still have to be worked out to get the all-clear from health and government officials — hungry hockey fans should be jumping for joy at the prospect of watching such an event from the comfort of their couches.
Just look at the tasty morsel we may soon get to sink our teeth into in the form of a Jets and Flames first-round meeting. Turns out the Heritage Classic at Mosaic Stadium in Regina last October, in which Winnipeg beat Calgary 2-1 in overtime, may have just been the appetizer.
The former Smythe Division rivals haven’t met in the playoffs since the spring of 1987, when Dale Hawerchuk and Paul MacLean led the Jets to a 4-2 series victory over Joe Mullen and Lanny McDonald in a first-round Smythe Division matchup. This would also be the first all-Canadian playoff series since 2015, when both Montreal and Ottawa and Calgary and Vancouver faced off.
In other words, bring it on. And it says here that with a full complement of players at the ready, including trade-deadline additions in Dylan DeMelo and Cody Eakin, the Jets could be poised to make some noise. They were coming on strong just before the season suspension, winners of four straight with several other injured players back in the fold. Whether they could pick up where they left off is one of the key questions we may soon get answered.
In a season where seemingly everything that could go wrong did go wrong — from Laine and Kyle Connor contract disputes in training camp, Sami Niku and Kristian Vesalainen’s car crash, Dustin Byfuglien’s shocking season-long saga, Mark Letestu’s heart ailment, Little’s freak friendly-fire injury, Nathan Beaulieu’s dog killed in a hit-and-run, Mason Appleton getting injured playing football on the field in Regina — a deep run in an unprecedented playoff format would be fitting.
"Everybody kind of stepped up this year. All the young guys, they were getting more ice time and a bigger role this year. Everybody handled it really well and that’s what we need to do and keep doing," said Laine.
Turns out Vegas isn’t quite as high on their hopes, as the latest odds sent to me earlier this week peg Winnipeg with the second-worst odds to be the lone Central Division club left standing, ahead of only Chicago. Colorado, St. Louis, Dallas, Nashville and Minnesota are all ahead.
Regardless, it’s just nice to be able to start thinking, and talking, hockey again. Sure, it may look, sound and feel a lot different than usual, but I’d suggest for those reasons alone it could end up being the most memorable playoffs of our lifetime.
Updated on Friday, May 22, 2020 at 9:49 PM CDT: Fixes photo caption.
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