Finally. After months of uncertainty, the 2020-21 campaign got underway on Wednesday. It began late enough that even referring to it as 2020-21 is technically inaccurate given that no games of the campaign were actually played in 2020, but amid a pandemic, I’m just grateful we’re getting hockey at all – and this should be some interesting hockey.
I like the division-only play and the abundance of two and even three-game series. The idea of contest battles against rivals and each division being a self-contained entity where each team is fighting for one of the four playoff spots within it is fun. It gives every game some extra tension and it adds more intrigue to the final four portion of the postseason when teams are facing each other for the very first time. Personally, while I know this type of scheduling is a matter of necessity under the unique circumstances of this season, I think this format should make this season unlike any in recent memory and likely also distinct from future campaigns.
That said, we’ve already run into some problems. The Dallas Stars were supposed to play their season opener tonight, but a COVID outbreak among their players prevented that. At the moment it’s not clear when their season will start. It won’t be until Jan. 19 at the earliest, but there’s talk that their opener may be pushed back until Jan. 22. Given how condensed the schedule already is, any postponed games will be hard to makeup later, though I have to imagine that the NHL came into this season with the knowledge that there unfortunately would be some postponed games along the way.
Even among the other teams, which did play, COVID was a factor. For example, J.T. Miller, who was the Canucks leading scorer last season, missed the season opener and is self-isolating after being in contact with Jordie Benn, who is reportedly being tested as a presumed positive case. Teams are used to having to overcome injuries, so from that perspective missing players is nothing new, but it still feels different when it’s COVID. All we can do is hope that the NHL’s policies ultimately protect the players and all those around them as much as possible. Adapting is something we’ve all had to do over the last year and while the NHL will adjust as needed, prevention remains the ideal.
That all said, even with all the challenges, the fact that the NHL is back is great news and Wednesday’s season openers were a treat. There were some amazing stories right off the bat. Nolan Patrick scored in his first game in nearly two years after recovering from a migraine disorder to help lead the Flyers to a 6-3 victory. His teammate Oskar Lindblom also found the back of the net in his first regular season contest since his battle with Ewing's sarcoma, which is a rare form of bone cancer. The Flyers were a great team last year and with those two key role players healthy again, they look like a serious Cup contender.
Editor’s Note: Drafting is only half the battle! Get an edge on your competition all season long with rankings, projections, trade evaluator, lineup adviser and much more with our NHL Season Tools. Click here to learn more!
Speaking of contenders, the Lightning celebrated their championship on Wednesday and then went straight to work on defending it with a 5-1 victory against Chicago. Steven Stamkos, who only played in one postseason game in 2020 because of an abdominal core muscle injury, was a huge contributor with a goal and three points. As long as he stays healthy, he should be one of the league’s top forwards again this season.
The contest between Montreal and Toronto was a particularly fun back-and-forth affair that ultimately ended with Morgan Rielly scoring in overtime to hand Toronto a 5-4 victory. Those two squads are going to play each other a staggering 10 times this season, so the Canadiens will have plenty of chances to get back at Toronto.
We’re not slowing down either. Far from it. After starting the season with five contests on Wednesday, there are 10 games slated for Thursday night. There’s going to be some notable NHL debuts tonight including the Rangers’ Alexis Lafreniere and the Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov. Those are two of the favorites to win the Calder Trophy going into this season.
We also have Edmonton and Vancouver playing each other for the second straight game after the Canucks earned a 5-3 victory on Wednesday. The Oilers had an encouraging offseason, but over the last 15 years, Edmonton’s story has been littered with disappointment. Will this season be any different? It’s didn’t get off to an encouraging start, but the Oilers have an opportunity to respond right away. Alternatively they could lose again and find themselves playing catch up right out of the gate.
Those are just some of the stories going into Day 2 of what should be a great campaign.