Washington – An NHL season that has already been disrupted by COVID-19 even before the first puck drops will start Wednesday with the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning among the contenders for this season’s title.
The campaign has been shortened from 82 games to 56 and is scheduled to run until May 8 — with teams playing in their in home arenas — with the playoffs to follow into July. The league is hopeful of returning to a normal October start for the 2021-22 season. The Dallas Stars, however, have already had their first four games postponed after six players and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
The geography of the league has been realigned due to international travel restrictions, leaving all seven Canadian clubs to compete in their own division while the U.S. teams will play in three eight-team divisions.
Without spectators in the stands for many clubs for most of the season because of the virus, the league stands to lose more than $1 billion, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday.
“We’re coming back to play this season because we think it’s important for the game,” Bettman said. “It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play.”
Bettman said revenue from spectators accounts for half of all NHL income.
“Everybody is going to lose a lot of money to do this,” Bettman said.
Only Dallas, Florida and Arizona plan to have a limited number of spectators for their games.
Last season ended with the Lightning beating the Stars in six games to win the Stanley Cup on Sept. 28 inside the league’s bubble in Edmonton. The season ended nearly a year after the 2019-20 opener, with the NHL stopping play on March 12 due to the pandemic and returning with an expanded postseason in August and September in quarantine bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.
In addition to the shortened schedule this season, games in Europe, outdoor contests in Minnesota and North Carolina and the NHL All-Star Game in Florida have all been canceled.
The league will, however, play two outdoor games at Lake Tahoe in February.
The Lightning, who have the most wins, playoff wins and goals scored in the NHL over the past six seasons, figure to contend for the Cup again this year with Steven Stamkos healthy after missing most of Tampa Bay’s playoff run, Andrei Vasilevskiy solid at goaltender and Victor Hedman anchoring a strong defensive unit.
This year’s divisional shakeup, however, makes Dallas a division rival instead of a foe from the opposite conference.
Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, who scored 48 goals to share the league lead with Boston’s David Pastrnak, will be trying to lead a repeat of 2018’s Stanley Cup title run under new coach Peter Laviolette.
The Capitals also boast the NHL’s oldest and tallest player in 43-year-old, 206-cm defenseman Zdeno Chara and the top assist-producing backliner in John Carlson, who set-up 60 goals last season while scoring 15.
Boston, which led the NHL with 44 wins last season, should also be a factor behind Pastrnak and a fast, physical lineup.
Colorado, powered by 35-goal scorer Nathan MacKinnon, will be a favorite in the West alongside the Vegas Golden Knights, who lost to Washington in the 2018 final — in their inaugural season — and reached last year’s Western Conference final.
Hockey-mad Canada will enjoy a season unlike any other with its seven teams playing in their own division.
The Edmonton Oilers should be a force behind stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl while the Toronto Maple Leafs, powered by 47-goal scorer Auston Matthews, also figure to contend for Canadian bragging rights.
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