Imagine this: It is the morning of July 15, 2021. Hours away is Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the culmination of a shortened season and four rounds of playoff hockey that all felt like a two-week blur.
It is a day of celebration, amid the backdrop of a planet that feels lighter, more joyful, because it’s summer, the sun is shining, and worldwide COVID-19 vaccinations keep steadily sending the virus into history. Everywhere, people are standing up, reaching for the sky, and feeling free.
Except in Toronto, where hockey fans are doubled over. They can hardly keep their morning coffee down. They’re steeling themselves.
Why? It’s Game 7 of the Cup Final, and they have to play the Bruins.
Yes, that scenario could actually happen this summer: Boston-Toronto, one game for hockey’s holy grail. Know what else could happen? Boston-Montreal, a Cup Final series that might just end in someone demanding a police investigation. C’est possible. Or Boston-Tampa, a series that might end with … ah, let’s just leave that one alone.
These are some of the possibilities the NHL and NHLPA created on Sunday, when they gave the go-ahead to the 2020-21 season. There are no Eastern and Western Conferences this season. There is a Canadian division, referred to as the “North,” and in the US, “East,” “Central” and “West” divisions. The 16 playoff teams will play in-division for the first two rounds, the four division champions then re-seeding (by regular season point totals) for the last two rounds.
That’s where we get this delicious bit of fantasy-slash-verisimilitude: If the Leafs or Habs made it out of the Canadian North … or the Lightning emerged from the Central … they could be in a final four with Boston, should the veteran Bruins be beasts of the East.
Come to think of it, Chicago (Central) and St. Louis (West) would be a heck of a Cup Final. Or Tampa (Central) and Toronto (North). Oh, and good news for our pals up there: Canada will have a representative in the final four for the first time since 2018 (Winnipeg). No guarantee, of course, of the first Canadian Cup winner since ’93 (Montreal), or the first Leafs title since ’67.
Seems like a sure bet this 56-game sprint to the postseason will be rife with regional hatred and familiarity-bred contempt, both factors freely enjoyed around these parts. In the Canadian sector, the Battle of Alberta could happen up to 17 times: nine or 10 tilts during the year, and in a playoff series, as many as seven games. Let’s hope it’s safe to have fans in attendance for at least a couple of them.
The Bruins will face their East cohorts — the Capitals, Devils, Flyers, Islanders, Penguins, Rangers and Sabres — eight times each. So, if David Pastrnak is healthy enough to make another run at the Rocket Richard Trophy, he will be beating the same goalies over and over again. By season’s end, the Bruins will have a 300-page scouting report on Rangers No. 1 draft pick Alexis Lafreniere. They might wind up cursing talented Flyers puckstopper Carter Hart. They will have all the chances they need to get a handle on their Tom Wilson problem.
Covid-19 has been the real bully here, as it has been in so many walks of life these last nine months. The NHL wound up trimming 26 games from the 2020-21 schedule, but committed to wrapping the playoffs by mid-July. The league plans to return to a conventional, October-to-June schedule in 2021-22, when the expansion Seattle Kraken enter the waters.
Right now, the proposed calendar of critical dates is fluid, but here it is:
▪ As agreed to in principle on Friday, training camps will begin Dec. 31 for last year’s non-playoff teams; Jan. 3 for last season’s 24 bubble dwellers. There will be no exhibition games.
▪ In the coming days, the NHL and NHLPA will release game schedules, with teams playing at home rinks as Covid-19 conditions allow. At least two teams, Dallas and Florida, are expected to welcome a small number of fans to their home openers. TD Garden is still off-limits to the general public. Meanwhile, San Jose will hold camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., because of the coronavirus situation in Northern California.
▪ The trade deadline will be April 12. The regular season ends May 8.
▪ The season ends on a hurried note, with the Seattle expansion draft (July 21), NHL draft (July 23-24; location TBD) and free agency day (July 28) in the span of a week.
▪ Another fun wrinkle to this year, necessitated by COVID: a taxi squad of four to six players that goes beyond the 23-player roster limit. Teams have to carry a third goalie.
The Bruins, and the rest of the East, will have the benefit of easy travel in this harried year. Barring a shift of any teams to a neutral-site “hub city” for COVID-19 reasons, no team in the division will have to fly longer than about 80 minutes to play. The longest trip in the division is Boston to Pittsburgh, about 570 miles by car.
Montreal and Vancouver, who could face each other between nine and 17 times, are separated by some 2,800 miles and three time zones. There are much shorter trips in that division, which also includes Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Ottawa.
The Central is a hodgepodge, with refugees from the Atlantic (Detroit, Florida, and Tampa); Metro (Carolina, Columbus); and Western Conference clubs Chicago, Dallas, and Nashville. It makes sense to see a West division with Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Vegas … but Minnesota and St. Louis will be hanging loose for 56 games there, too.
Come mid-July, maybe the Blues and Blackhawks, separated by some 300 miles, will clash in the Cup Final. Or maybe Causeway Street will be filled with anxious Bostonians and Maple Leaf Square with nervous Torontonians, just like old times, when people gathered together in public spaces and celebrated their teams. The dream of that day, or something like it, just became a little more real.