The wait is almost over. Hockey fans have been longing to see NHL games that count for over four-and-a-half months since the league paused on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Saturday is the day.
Day 1 of the NHL's Return To Play program and its 24-team postseason tournament will feature matchups like Game 1 between the Western Conference's No. 12 seed Blackhawks vs. the No. 5 hometown Oilers in a best-of-five play-in series with the winner advancing to the Round One of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Unlike previous NHL postseasons, the teams competing for the Stanley Cup this year and their rosters are much closer to being at full strength than usual.
In an interview for NBC Sports with Liam McHugh to highlight the tournament, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was asked how much experience may factor into the unique postseason, but his answer took things in another direction.
"Experience helps, although this is a novel experience for everybody," Bettman said. "This is a long road trip even if you play for Toronto or Edmonton, you're not going home and so the experience (is) in a bubble. But, what's interesting on the other side is just about every club is healthy, which you wouldn't normally have going into the playoffs. I think the caliber of play is going to be extraordinarily high."
He's right. After a grueling 82-game season with no break before the postseason, a lot of teams are usually missing players or have players playing in games that are hurt. This year's postseason could look a lot different with teams' lineups the way they intended them to be for meaningful games on big stages, only this time they'll be playing in the NHL's two hub cities: Edmonton and Toronto.
Look at the Blackhawks. Chicago could have gotten a major defensive upgrade with Calvin de Haan returning to the blue line after a shoulder surgery ended his regular season in December. Heck, Brent Seabrook almost came back after having shoulder surgery and surgery on both hips this past winter.
The fact that players have had over four months to recover from injuries, rest and even reflect on their game during the regular season should make for a very interesting and competitive 2020 postseason. Get the popcorn ready.
Why NHL's 24-team playoff tournament should be more competitive originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago