NHL

Rivalries set to intensify during different NHL season

By Sports Desk January 12, 2021

Like everything else over the past year, the hockey world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. The 2019-20 season was completed with teams playing in bubble locations in Toronto and Edmonton and the 2020 campaign will open without fans as part of a condensed 56-game season, among a slew of other changes. 

With the previous season extending several months past the normal ending date, the league had little choice but to delay the start of 2021 and to find a way to make a shortened season work. The new plan is for the regular season to end on May 8, with the Stanley Cup awarded no later than July 9. 

Of course, nothing is set in stone anymore and the NBA and NFL have had to deal with countless COVID-19 issues, so the NHL expects similar problems to arise with the pandemic experiencing another surge. The league knows it may have to adapt and games will very likely need to be rescheduled. 

The NHL has already dealt with this, as the start of the season for the Dallas Stars had to be pushed back to January 19 after six players and two staffers tested positive for coronavirus. While the completion of last season in the bubble locations was virtually flawless, teams are playing in home arenas this season, increasing the chances of players becoming infected. 

To combat this, teams will be allowed to carry taxi squads of four to six extra players who will practice and be prepared to step in when needed. 

While there is less hockey to enjoy, there are some tweaks to the upcoming season that fans will enjoy. 

The four divisions have been realigned and they include an all-Canada division of seven teams, made necessary by border restrictions. The other three divisions are mostly based on geography, but St Louis and Minnesota were shuffled into a division with the three California teams, Vegas, Arizona and Colorado. 

The Chicago-Detroit rivalry gets renewed with the Red Wings moving into the Central Division, and Tampa Bay and Dallas – last season's Stanley Cup Final participants – are now together in the Central.  

There should be no shortage of intensity this season with teams scheduled to play mostly back-to-back sets solely against teams in their own division. So, the Flyers and Penguins will meet eight times, as will the Islanders and Rangers and Kings and Ducks. The teams in the all-Canada division will face each other nine or 10 times.  

The first two playoff rounds will be played within the division, meaning the bad blood that started in the regular season could grow even deeper. The division winners will then advance to the semifinals but seeding will be based on points rather than geography.  

The new setup raises the possibility of a Stanley Cup Final between traditional East teams like the Capitals and Penguins or Canadian rivals Montreal and Toronto.   

To recoup some of the money lost by having no fans or limited fans at the start of the season in some cities, the NHL is allowing teams to include a sponsor name on their helmets and each division will also include the name of a corporate sponsor. 

The condensed season was preceded by an abbreviated training camp without exhibition games and there is concern that the start of the season will be marred by sloppy play. This could be especially true for the seven teams that have not played a game since March after they did not qualify for the expanded playoffs.  

As in any offseason, several big-name players changed teams. It will be jarring to see 43-year-old Zdeno Chara in a Capitals uniform and Joe Thornton playing for the Maple Leafs after 14 seasons in San Jose. Henrik Lundqvist would have looked strange as a member of the Capitals following an 887-game run with the Rangers, but he decided not to play this season due to a heart condition. 

Injuries will also keep some marquee players off the ice for a while. Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov – the 2018-19 scoring leader – will miss the entire regular season due to hip surgery and the Stars could be without top forward Tyler Sequin (hip) and goaltender Ben Bishop (knee) until at least March.  

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is out indefinitely with an unknown illness and there is no word on whether the 12-time 20-goal scorer will play this season. 

While this season is full of unknowns and will be like no other before it, the potential is there for it to be one of the most exciting in recent memory.

Related items

  • Predators' Prokop becomes NHL's first active player to come out as gay Predators' Prokop becomes NHL's first active player to come out as gay

    Nashville Predators' defenseman Luke Prokop has announced he is gay, making him the first contracted NHL player to come out publicly.

    Prokop, 19, is yet to make his debut in the NHL but marked a historic day on Monday as he made his announcement on Instagram.

    "It has been quite the journey to get to this point in my life, but I could not be happier with my decision to come out," Prokop wrote in his post.

    "From a young age I have dreamed of being an NHL player, and I believe that living my authentic life will allow me to bring my whole self to the rink and improve my chances of fulfilling my dreams."

    Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Prokop was selected as a third-round draft pick by the Predators in the 2020 NHL Draft.

    He signed a three-year deal after previously impressing for Calgary Hitmen in the Western Hockey League.

    Prokop's decision to come out follows that of Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib, who became the first openly gay active NFL player last month.

    "It's been very special, talking to my friends, my family, my coaches, my agents," Prokop told The Athletic. "And them being very supportive, me coming out and being OK with who I was. ... I've noticed myself being a lot more confident on the ice.

    "Being able to truly be who I am. This is the best I've ever felt in the summer and I think a large part of that is due to this process of me coming out."

    Having made his decision in April during the COVID-19 enforced season break, Prokop told three of his Hitmen team-mates and hopes he can inspire others to feel comfortable coming out.

    "They've [Prokop's team-mates] been really great," he added. "The part of me coming out is that I'm just one of the guys.

    "Who I love and who I go home with that night, that's private and it shouldn't matter anymore. I'm just there to play hockey, I'm there to win a championship.

    "If I can inspire or help make a difference to one person, then I've done my job in wanting to create change and to create an environment where it's healthy for players to come out now."

    Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, said in a statement on Monday that the league would support Prokop and praised him for "sharing his truth and for being so brave".

    "We pledge to do everything possible to ensure that Luke's experience is a welcoming and affirmative one and continue to work to ensure that any current or future NHL player contemplating following in his trailblazing footsteps knows our League is ready to provide full support."

  • Stanley Cup: Champions Lightning were inspired by looming break-up to go back-to-back Stanley Cup: Champions Lightning were inspired by looming break-up to go back-to-back

    Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper says his side were motivated to win before the group likely breaks up this offseason after lifting the Stanley Cup on Wednesday.

    The Lightning won 1-0 over the Montreal Canadiens at Tampa's Amalie Arena to clinch a 4-1 Stanley Cup Finals triumph, lifting the trophy for the third time in franchise history.

    Ross Colton, who along with David Savard has been linked with an offseason move away from Tampa, scored the only goal of the game in the second period to seal the back-to-back Stanley Cup triumphs.

    "We didn’t talk about it publicly, the team knows they are probably not going to be together next year," Cooper said post-game.

    "It was led by Ryan McDonagh, [Patrick] Maroon and [David] Savard, that was the conservation, 'don’t let this end, it's too special a group'.

    "They weren’t going to go out without raising the trophy."

    The Lightning's domination in recent years has seen them not lose consecutive playoff games since the first round of the 2019 series.

    Cooper added: "It's a culmination of your whole life's work. Character that can trump skill. This group has it, gamers all over the place. The players did it. I just sat their chewing gum."

    Maroon earned special praise, as he celebrated lifting his third consecutive Stanley Cup, after the left-winger triumphed with the St Louis Blues in 2018-19.

    "This was one special," Maroon said. "It's hard to win. [I'm] Blessed to be a part of good teams.

    "It's hard to go back-to-back. To be a part of a group that's so special, it's really good.

    "You can put me in some good company. I'm truly blessed."

  • Stanley Cup: Canadiens have 'no intention of stopping now' after avoiding sweep Stanley Cup: Canadiens have 'no intention of stopping now' after avoiding sweep

    The Montreal Canadiens are still believing after Josh Anderson's overtime goal helped them stave off a rare Stanley Cup Final series sweep with a 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday.

    The Canadiens killed off a four-minute penalty to captain Shea Weber in overtime before Anderson's goal forced a Game 5 in Tampa, with the series at 3-1 in favour of the reigning NHL champions.

    Montreal would have become the first side to suffer a clean sweep defeat in the Final series since 1998, when the Detroit Red Wings won 4-0 over the Washington Capitals.

    Instead, the Canadiens are the first team to score in overtime to avoid a sweep in the Stanley Cup Final since the Bruins did it in 1946 against the Canadiens.

    "We didn't want to end it tonight in front of our fans," Anderson said at the post-game news conference. "We expected to go to Tampa.

    "I think everybody in that locker room packed their bags this afternoon. We just had that feeling that we were going to win tonight and give ourselves a chance to go there, take care of business, and come home in front of our fans. We're in a good position now."

    If Montreal can win Game 5 in Tampa, they will have home rink advantage for Game 6 at the Bell Centre. Montreal are 4-0 when facing elimination this postseason.

    Anderson said the Canadiens' grit to hang on during Weber's four-minute penalty showed they could overcome adversity.

    "Our penalty kill has been outstanding all playoffs, so we came back to the room and we just believed in each other," Anderson said.

    "We weren't down. It was all positive things in the room. We just had to execute. I thought we did a phenomenal job.

    "Carey [Price] was a wall tonight. He gave us that chance to finish it in overtime. Everyone stuck together and did their jobs."

    Interim Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme added: "We're proud of what we accomplished tonight, but we don't want to just avoid seeing the Lightning players holding the Stanley Cup.

    "We have no intention of stopping now. We want to go to Tampa and come back to play another game here."

    Game 5 is at Tampa's Amalie Arena on Wednesday.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.