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The National Hockey League is close to its return, and the Florida Panthers are mere weeks away from a chance to build on their first season under coach Joel Quenneville that ended in a postseason appearance.
The league announced Sunday in conjunction with the NHL Players Association the approval of a 56-game regular season starting Jan. 13 and ending May 8, with the postseason running through mid-July. The exact schedule, as well as the league’s health and safety protocols, are expected to be released in the next few days. This comes after the NHL had its regular season halted three weeks early because of COVID-19 and resumed with an expanded playoff format played in two hub cities.
The delayed start time and reduced number of games, down from the usual 81 in a regular season, aren’t the only adjustments the league had to make for next season as it tries to be “flexible and adaptable” due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Realigned divisions, an updated postseason seeding format and backup plans to play in neutral sites have been addressed.
“The National Hockey League looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season, especially since the Return to Play in 2019-20 was so successful in crowning a Stanley Cup champion,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play. And, as was the case last spring and summer, I thank the NHLPA, particularly Executive Director Don Fehr, for working cooperatively with us to get our League back on the ice.”
Fehr added: “The players are pleased to have finalized agreements for the upcoming season, which will be unique but also very exciting for the fans and players alike. During these troubled times, we hope that NHL games will provide fans with some much needed entertainment as the players return to the ice.”
Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming season, and specifically how things apply to the Panthers.
Who will the Florida Panthers play this year?
The NHL for this season has divided teams geographically into four divisions. This includes a seven-team “North” division that includes all seven of the NHL’s Canadian teams, necessitated by the fact that the United States-Canada border remains closed.
The Panthers are in the eight-team “Central” division, which also includes the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators.
Teams will only play against those in their division during the regular season, meaning the Panthers will play seven games against each team in their division.
The other three divisions:
▪ East: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals.
▪ West: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights.
▪ North: Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets.
Will the Florida Panthers play at the BB&T Center? And will there be fans?
The NHL says teams that are allowed to will play games in their home arena will do so while adding that “most arenas will not, at least in the initial part of the season, be able to host fans.”
“However,” the league’s release noted, “depending on prevailing conditions both in local markets and across North America, the League will be prepared to play games in one or more “neutral site” venues per division should it become necessary.”
The Panthers have yet not officially announced whether they will have fans in the 20,000-seat BB&T Center.
It should be noted that the BB&T Center recently became the first NHL arena to achieve the International WELL Building Institute’s Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management, which recognizes the arena’s “adherence to the IWBI’s stringent guidelines and protocols for combatting COVID-19 and preparedness to safely accommodate fans upon reopening.”
What will the Stanley Cup Playoffs look like?
The top four teams in each division will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs to create a 16-team bracket. All four rounds will be best-of-7 series.
The first two rounds of the playoffs will continue to be intradivision matchups. Round 1 will be the No. 1 seed against the No. 4 seed and the No. 2 seed against the No. 3 seed. The winners will face each other in the quarterfinals. The four teams that advance to the semifinals, one from each division, will then be seeded by their regular-season point totals.
When will the Florida Panthers start training camp? Will there be preseason games?
The Panthers begin training camp on Jan. 3. The NHL is not playing preseason games this season.