NHL Playoffs Open as COVID Rules Dictate Home Ice Advantage

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The National Hockey League announced a staggered first round playoff schedule on Thursday, two days before games are set to begin.

Additionally, there are more relaxed coronavirus protocols, new on-ice shot-and-save analytic technologies and the hope that the entire postseason—four rounds of best-of-seven—will end early enough for the next 82-game regular season to begin sometime in October.

For the 14 teams that missed the playoffs, the offseason has already begun, with coaching changes underway for the New York Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Arizona Coyotes. The expansion Seattle Kraken are also in the market to hire their first head coach, along with an entire on-ice staff.

Coaches David Quinn, John Tortorella and Rick Tocchet are looking for new jobs. The Rangers also fired president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton in a complete reshuffling.

“Rick Tocchet is a good coach; he’s a good man,” Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong said after making the decision a day after the regular season for his club ended. “The easiest way to say it is that at this point in time we were looking for new leadership and a new voice, and he’d been here for four years. It was a hard decision, but one that had to be made.”

There will likely be other heads to roll as the playoffs unfold, beginning with Saturday night’s game that pits the Boston Bruins against the Capitals in Washington. The New York Islanders follow, opening their series Sunday against the Penguins at Pittsburgh. Next week’s Islander home games will be played at nearly 50% capacity in the 14,000-seat Nassau Coliseum.

It’s a league that places outsized responsibility on the shoulders of its coaches, 30% of whom have been replaced since the start of the 2019-20 season.

This, despite the last two seasons shortened by COVID-19 and dealing with heightened protocols and restricted player movement because of the pandemic. Just playing the games has been the main thing, and that will remain the key the next two months.

It’s been an all-hands-on-deck approach, and that won’t abate as the playoff and offseason begins.

“I’ve told everyone in the organization that I’m available to help,” said Rangers veteran executive Glen Sather, a former player, club president and Stanley Cup-winning coach who’s now a senior adviser to owner James Dolan. “That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do: Make the team better. If they ask me a question I give them an honest answer.”

Thirteen NHL teams had COVID-19 spread through their dressing rooms during this abbreviated 56-game season, causing mass postponements of games in some places. Neither the Rangers nor the Coyotes were among them, which says a lot about the day-to-day staff each club had in place.

By contrast, a three-week hiatus for the Vancouver Canucks has caused an extension of the regular season in the North Division—comprised of the seven Canadian teams—through next Wednesday. The playoffs in that bracket will begin the following day with the chance of that round extending as far as May 31.

Unlike last year when the playoffs were staged during two months in Toronto and Edmonton, there are no immediate plans for a bubble. The first round games will all be played in the arenas of the competing teams, regardless of seating capacity or fan attendance restrictions.

But after that, the surviving two Canadian teams probably won’t be able to play any more games in Canada because of continued travel restrictions at the U.S. border.

Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have already confronted that problem, and neither Toronto’s Blue Jays nor Raptors have been able to play a game in Canada since pro sports went into pandemic hiatus on March 12, 2020.

The fact is, the Blue Jays are in the process of playing their second full season south of the border and are readying to shift “home games” back to a Triple-A ballpark in Buffalo from their spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., on June 1. They played most of their abbreviated 30-game home slate at Sahlen Field last year.

Bettman knows the same score, and he said during his last media conference call this past March that provisions would be made in the U.S. based on the health care restrictions in Canada.

“We’ll deal with whatever the situation is from a pandemic standpoint and whatever government regulations are,” Bettman said. “I suppose it is conceivable to go to a quasi-bubble if we’re going to play the conference finals, and there’s a Canadian team in the Stanley Cup Final. But again, we’ll do whatever we need to do that’s safe from a medical standpoint.

“So, we don’t have bubble plans right now. But if we do, we’d develop them in a heartbeat as we did over the [past] summer.”

Meanwhile, the NHL in concert with the NHL Players’ Association is relaxing testing and distancing protocols during the playoffs and offseason for all teams deemed to be at the 85% level of full vaccination.

Testing on off-days for those players will not be required, and even on game days, point of care testing is not obligatory unless a test hasn’t been administered the previous day. Social gatherings are allowed but limited to eight people, including friends and family, outside the club’s immediate traveling party.

Anyone who happens to test positive must enter the COVID-19 test protocol even if that player has been vaccinated.

Last year in the dual bubbles, the NHL reported no positive test results during the postseason when the Tampa Bay Lightning prevailed over the Dallas Stars to win the Stanley Cup in six games. Everyone is hoping for similar success this year.

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