NHL pandemic playoffs outside bubble off to thrilling start

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Paul Maurice learned through almost 2,000 games behind an NHL bench that scoring or giving up a goal gives a team about five minutes to maintain the momentum or stem the tide — especially in the playoffs.

“The crowd is just buzzing,” Winnipeg's coach said. “It’s more true at this time of year. Obviously the crowd’s full and loud and they’ve lost their minds.”

On Wednesday night, 9,000 Islanders fans lost their minds when three goals in three minutes turned the game around and New York was on its way to eliminating Pittsburgh and into the second round. Coach Barry Trotz said of the fans, “Without them, I don't know if we would’ve pulled this off.”

A pandemic postseason outside of a bubble has created some thrilling hockey after an exhausting, condensed 56-game grind. The familiarity of the all divisional playoffs has meant 18 of the first 40 playoff games have been decided by a single goal, with 13 going to overtime — sixth-most of any round in NHL history through Wednesday's games.

Crowd sizes have varied, from empty arenas in Canada to more than 10,000 fans across the U.S.. It has tilted the ice in the eight first-round series and only added to the intensity on the march to the Stanley Cup Final.

“You look at every single night and whether it’s going into overtime or they’re one-goal games, they’re all pretty tight and good matchups,” Boston defenseman Mike Reilly said. “Super fun to watch, and obviously the pace of the game is as high as can be.”

Players might be tired or extra banged-up after playing 56 games in four months just to get here but there has been plenty of nastiness. Florida and Tampa Bay combined for 92 penalty minutes in one game in the first series ever between the cross-state rivals and there have already been three suspensions.

While players in the North Division gaze with envy from across the border at arenas anywhere from 25% to almost 75% full, the 12 U.S. playoff teams certainly are making the most of this postseason after the silent, empty bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton last summer.

“Maybe the level was a little off compared to normal circumstances, and now we’re getting closer to normalcy,” said retired goaltender Brian Boucher, who is working duringt the playoffs for NBC Sports. “In some buildings there’s significant crowds. I think players get jacked up to play in front of fans. They get juiced up and get wild. That’s why it’s the greatest time of year. I think maybe that’s why we’re seeing the game taken to another level.”

Colorado coach Jared Bednar, whose team swept St. Louis in the first round, also noted that momentum carried over from the regular season, a far cry form the four-plus months off in 2020. The fans — up to more than 14,000 starting Thursday night in Nashville — add another layer of energy.

“It’s a little bit of a powder keg because we haven’t had it for a long time and once you get it, man, you can get to another level,” said Maurice, whose Jets advanced by sweeping Edmonton. “So much of hockey is just emotion. The X's and O's are there and that’s really important and the adjustments we all talk about. It’s really about the quality of the player that you have and the emotional level that you can get to, and having fans in the building really makes a big difference.”

Morgan Rielly said he and his Toronto teammates have gotten so accustomed to playing in empty arenas that they don't talk about it anymore. It's just “reality” to them.

Boucher believes the fans have played a role in momentum shifts all playoffs.

“When you’re on the road and you haven’t faced the crowd in a year and all of a sudden the game starts slipping out of your hands and you’re trying to get it back, things can happen at 1,000 mph,” Boucher said. “For a player, if you haven’t been in that environment for a while, it takes some getting used to again.”

One thing that didn't need any getting used was the opponent. The entire season was played within the division, with teams facing off anywhere from eight to 10 times and reducing the need for a feeling-out process when the playoffs began.

That familiarity is responsibility for the tightness of games and series, even those that on paper looked more lopsided. Nashville's Colton Sissons said, “There’s just not a lot of difference in the level of play” between teams like the Predators and division-wining Hurricanes, and the same could be said between the Golden Knights and Wild in the West.

“These games are tight," Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said ahead of Game 7 on Friday. "Teams are too close, too good, the margins of error are too small.”

The margin of error gets even smaller as the postseason wears on, which is perhaps why retired great Wayne Gretzky said it's “hard to predict” right now how the playoffs will unfold. He won't be against the defending champion Lightning, though.

A safe bet is more nail-biting with games — and even series — decided by a bounce or a big play at the right moment. Probably a bunch more in overtime, too.

“It’s going to be a really, really intense playoffs as it keeps going,” Maurice said.

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AP Sports Writers Pat Graham and Joe Reedy contributed.

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Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports