Maybe it’s because fans are slowly coming back into the stands? Maybe it’s because my Pittsburgh Penguins again matching up against the New York Islanders again in round one and possibly facing the Washington Capitals in the second round again, just like they did for three-straight playoffs from 2016-2018?
Regardless, this is the most normal the National Hockey League has felt since the March 12, 2020 pause due to COVID-19.
It is still not normal. From the bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton to finish the 2020 season after a long layoff, to the corporate-sponsored divisions created to limit travel and the empty arenas or limited crowds allowed in, this has been a strange season, but also kind of fun.
Teams only play within their division, it was a shortened 56-game regular season and with no Eastern or Western Conference, we could have a Stanley Cup Final you would never see in the normal four-division, two-division format that’s been in place for almost a decade.
There are few observations from this season….
-The East Division, or “Metropolitan Light”, was the most entertaining of the four.
-The Carolina Hurricanes being put in the Central Division gave them a better chance to win a division title. The would have had the potential to be a 3 or 4 seed in the East based on the better competition there compared to the Central.
-The Florida Panthers are that sneaky-good team this season. Sneaky because most in south Florida and the country don’t really pay attention to what’s happening in Sunrise. Maybe being a listener to The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz podcast as of late, and listening to the local hour with Roy Bellamy‘s hockey expertise, the “marching band to nowhere” has me keeping a close eye on the “Ice Cats”. #RAWR
-Just let the Toronto Maple Leafs play all the Canadian teams and they can win the division. But can they come out as the lone team from the North Division?
-My eyes are still getting used to the lighter blue the Colorado Avalanche are wearing this season with their helmets and jerseys. Did not see them winning the Presidents’ Trophy, but after watching them a little more lately, I can see why they pulled out the top spot out West and home ice for as long as they stay in the playoffs.
-The third round and Stanley Cup Final matchups have the potential to be really, really interesting. With no Eastern and Western Conferences this season, the final four, normally the conference finals, could feature matchups that would never be seen in a normal year. Imagine there being no National or American League Championship Series in baseball, with the Cardinals and Yankees playing for a spot in the World Series. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins vs. Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs for the Cup, anyone?
-Will Canada let the North Division team cross the border to play games in the U.S. later in the playoffs? Talks are reportedly good, but the Canadian government has been a lot stricter with its COVID restrictions. None of the seven teams up north played in front of fans during the regular season. It also didn’t help the Vancouver Canucks had the worst virus outbreak of any team this season. The Montreal Canadiens will allow 12 percent capacity if a Game 6 happens in round one against Toronto.
-Speaking of fans, it has been SO nice to see fans in the stands again, with capacities slowly ticking up during the playoffs as vaccinations against COVID continue. Some states are moving faster than others, but whether they have been 5,000 or 10,000, real crowd noise with fans standing, waving rally towels beats the pumped-in noise we got in the bubbles.