The NHL officially returned Saturday. For the first time in nearly five months, hockey fans had something new to watch. Real, meaningful action. Five playoff qualifier games - three in Toronto and two in Edmonton - were played on Day 1. We provided running insight and analysis from behind the scenes at Scotiabank Arena, which is playing host to the Eastern Conference this summer.
Jeff Petry, from the slot, deep into the first overtime. Of course that's how this marathon of a day inside the Toronto Maple Leafs' home rink ends; a defenseman who's not only on the last-ranked Eastern Conference squad in the NHL's restart tournament but one from the Leafs' historical rival - the Canadiens - ties a bow on an incredible, back-and-forth 3-2 victory for Montreal.
Petry also zinged the post with a hard shot late in the third period. That was sandwiched between failed penalty shots by a player from each team - Conor Sheary for the Penguins in regulation and Jonathan Drouin for the Canadiens in overtime. This seemingly lopsided matchup had all the drama, and the action resembled regular playoff hockey.
But should we have expected anything less than this wacky ending? In these unprecedented times in the world, and in sport, we should continuously brace for the unexpected. We got that in spades on Saturday. And, from inside the secure zone in Toronto, from my perch in Section 306, it was admittedly weird at times, though also as normal as you could hope.
Sure, errant pucks that would normally go to a lucky fan ended up being scooped up by some guy with a pool skimmer. The humming crowd noise pumped into the arena speakers was a strange soundtrack, almost everybody within the walls of Scotiabank Arena - from the security guards to the trainers on the bench - were wearing masks, and, as expected, the Zoom calls between players and the media didn't go smoothly ("Can you please unmute yourself, sir?"). As for the multimedia setup surrounding the ice surface, those towers of digital graphics, it may have looked out of place at first, but, boy, did it grow on you throughout the day. It wasn't overwhelming or tacky.
In all honesty, the NHL deserves a boatload of credit for what it accomplished on Day 1. It completed a five-game schedule spread across two hub cities amid a pandemic. The ice didn't crap out due to overuse or summer temperatures; there were upsets, overtime action, and no major officiating controversies; and the league was socially active, for once.
It was a surreal, landmark day for the NHL. Full stop.
Here are a few observations as we wait for the third period of Pens-Habs:
Nick Suzuki showed, in no uncertain terms, that he can shoot the puck with pinpoint accuracy. His top-shelf snipe to make it 2-0 Montreal was perfectly placed. His hand-eye coordination on the defensive side of the puck, in whacking Pittsburgh passes out of the air like he's enjoying a game of shinny with his buddies, was equally impressive.
I don't know if this was displayed on the broadcast, but game ops flashed a "Let's Go Pens!" chant during a stoppage of play in the second that was accompanied by pre-recorded videos of fans cheering from home. Similar to its AI-powered NBA cousin, I appreciate the effort, the gesture, and the angle. The execution, though, was awkward. It came off completely unnatural and I doubt the players - so dialed-in - even noticed. I guess not every integration is going to hit.
The Penguins did a nice job of reversing course midway through the second. They were being far too cute with the puck for the first 10 or so minutes, making the extra pass or deke instead of simply firing a solid shot at the Montreal net. But a switch seemed to go off once captain Sidney Crosby scored that bank shot to make it 2-1 (he's been hungry tonight). The Penguins suddenly snapped out of their cuteness funk.
Day 1 came to a head in the opening of the final game Saturday night, with roughly six hours of hockey already in the books - the fifth-seeded Stanley Cup-contender Pittsburgh Penguins against the lucky-to-be-here Montreal Canadiens.
Black Lives Matter dominated the pregame theatrics through a touching video that included strong messages from the league and its players about being allies of not only the Hockey Diversity Alliance but the Black community at large. Coupled with the imagery and sentiments coming out of Edmonton this afternoon (kudos to Matt Dumba, who showed great leadership), the NHL took a step forward with its contributions to this important societal issue.
(As an aside, I couldn't help but laugh while watching players on all six teams in Toronto today habitually tap their sticks in admiration for the national anthem singers, none of whom were present since every performance was recorded ahead of time. Old habits die hard, I suppose.)
The first period flew by. The on-ice product was uptempo and fairly clean. The Penguins dominated, for the most part. Canadiens goalie and X-factor Carey Price was especially sharp, turning aside 18 Pittsburgh shots, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi's series-opening goal was flukey, though the sophomore did make sure he was in the right place at the right time. Either way, Montreal has life.
Death, taxes, and the Islanders successfully protecting a third-period lead.
While the Blackhawks were stunning the Oilers in the Edmonton matinee, the Islanders held down the fort against the Panthers in Toronto. Barry Trotz - the coaching mastermind behind the best defensive team of the past few years - had his skaters isolate goalie Semyon Varlamov as best they could, per usual. This collapsing scheme helped restrain Florida's top line of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Evgenii Dadonov, who pitched in one goal and seven total shots on goal in roughly 18 minutes of ice time together.
"Throughout the game, we did a pretty good job of that, of just sticking with it and playing the way we like to play," Isles defenseman Ryan Pulock said of the club's ability to hone in on its well-defined identity.
The other prominent storyline from New York's 2-1 victory was Mike Matheson's second-period head hit on Johnny Boychuk. The officials originally called a major penalty on the play, but after a review, they clawed Matheson's punishment back to a two-minute minor. The Isles scored on the ensuing power play; however, Boychuk never returned to their blue line.
Coming into today, I was curious about how the NHL would approach certain aspects of the in-game operation in the face of COVID-19. For example, given the emphasis within each hub city to limit the amount of people exposed to the players, how many folks would we see at ice level during games?
What I've observed through five periods of hockey (and, I must admit, I can't see everything from my vantage point in Section 306) is that on top of the necessary bodies - players, coaches, referees and linesmen, equipment managers, trainers, photographers, etc. - there's an ice crew of about a dozen people; four off-ice officials situated in the penalty box area; as well as the between-the-benches TV analyst. Overall, that's a fairly small group of people.
And that analyst, it should be noted, isn't directly exposed to everybody else because he's surrounded by glass as an extra precaution - probably a good call with spit, sweat, and other bodily fluids airborne. Brian Boucher of NBC manned the booth for the first game of the day (it's empty for Panthers-Islanders), which reminded me of this excellent tweet from the other day:
The first period of Panthers-Islanders was, in all honesty, boring. New York hemmed Florida in its own zone for the bulk of the frame. The fiery passion from Hurricanes-Rangers didn't flow over to the afternoon showdown.
Meanwhile, we're two pregame ceremonies into Day 1 of action at Scotiabank Arena and there hasn't been a single overt reference to the Black Lives Matter movement within the arena. No powerful Matt Dumba-style speeches. No players kneeling. Not even a "moment of solidarity" between teams like we saw multiple times during three days of exhibition games earlier this week.
Now, perhaps the NHL, Penguins, and Canadiens have something up their sleeves for the 8 p.m. game. In terms of eyeballs on the broadcast, that's the marquee time slot and matchup of Day 1. I'm optimistic there'll be some kind of recognition of BLM, but we'll see. For now, the lone nod is generic signage that says "#WeSkateForBlackLives" at each end of the rink, as well as the same message splashed across the top of the main scoreboard at center ice.
Thanks in large part to a fantastic start, the Hurricanes pulled out a 3-2 victory to take a 1-0 series lead. Some historical context: NHL teams that win Game 1 in a best-of-five own an all-time series record of 68-15 (.819).
This was no fluke, either. Carolina deserved this outcome, outshooting New York 37-26 while also holding a 69-49 advantage in shot attempts. It wasn't perfect, though. In Jaccob Slavin's postgame media availability, the Hurricanes' top defenseman lamented the Rangers' seven power-play opportunities.
"I don’t think we can take that many penalties and go deep in the playoff doing that," he said.
The game was a little on the sloppy side, in general. That was expected, given the unprecedented nature of the NHL restarting its season on Aug. 1.
As for the early game fight between Justin Williams and Ryan Strome, two generally mild-mannered guys who rarely drop the mitts? It was unplanned, according to Williams. "I don't preplan any fights," he said with a laugh.
"There was a lot of emotion at the start of the game, which was awesome to see because there was nobody really physically there watching us," Williams added. "You get on the ice and you compete and there's a lot of emotion, a lot of adrenaline, to start the game."
A 142-day hiatus will do that. Now onto Game 2 in Toronto: Panthers-Islanders.
The referees stole the show in the second period (so much for putting the whistles away in the postseason). The teams combined for seven minor penalties, though only one opportunity was seized, via Carolina's Sebastian Aho. A beautiful deflection from Mika Zibanejad at 14:26 brought the Rangers to within a goal of the Hurricanes, who enter the third up 2-1.
The NHL asked all 24 playoff teams to submit goal songs ahead of the restart. It appears Carolina chose Petey Pablo's 2001 anthem "Raise Up," while New York selected some indistinguishable heavy metal song (at least to my ears). Nice touch.
I had my eyes on the action for both second-period goals, and I knew exactly what was happening from chance to goal. But in other instances, such as when Henrik Lundqvist stopped Hurricanes forward Warren Foegele on a clear-cut breakaway, I didn't fully process the significance of the moment until after it had passed because I was partially distracted by my laptop. Under normal circumstances, the roar of the crowd alerts fans, media, and others in the building to the urgency of a particular play. This was different.
I failed to anticipate the impact an arena without fans would have on my experience. I also failed to anticipate the value of winter gloves. With hundreds of people in the building - rather than tens of thousands - it's really cold in here. It probably doesn't help that the ice crew is preparing for three games in one day; the colder the better.
As you may have seen on the broadcast, several Rangers players who didn't dress for the game have been watching from the stands, masks and all. That group includes Igor Shesterkin, whose "unfit to play" status naturally prompted speculation of a positive COVID-19 test. It looks like that's not the case; if he had tested positive, he'd be quarantining right now.
The first period of the first game of this ambitious 24-team playoff tournament was a wonderful gongshow. It was as if the hockey gods looked down and said, "Playoff hockey, in case you forgot, is tremendous theater. Here you go."
First, the revelation in warmups that Lundqvist would be starting, with Shesterkin deemed "unfit to play." Sort of a big deal in this matchup. Then, not even 30 seconds after the opening faceoff, loud cheers and stick bangs from the Hurricanes' bench after a tone-setting hit in the neutral zone. Roughly a minute after that crash, the postseason's first goal, courtesy of Slavin. For those, including myself, who wondered what kind of intensity we'd see in fanless arenas, we had our answer.
That ferocity was amplified a couple of shifts later when Williams, the 38-year-old all-time playoff hero, fought New York forward Strome in the area between both benches. Players pounded the boards with their gloved fists, bringing back memories of minor hockey players seeing their first-ever tilt. The sound carried throughout the rink while Strome took down Williams.
The period ended 1-0 Carolina. The action was on par with the stakes.
Another thing about the in-arena atmosphere: Game ops is piping in fake crowd noise to help create a close-to-normal environment for players, coaches, and officials. It's subtle - not too loud - and seems effective because you can still clearly hear crisp passes, skates carving into the ice, and players yelling, moaning, and chirping. If I'm a player, I'm happy with the setup.
If I could use one word to reduce the pregame experience - the walk to the rink from my car, entry into the arena, the hour prior to warmups - it would be stillness.
Stillness, or something close to it, outside Scotiabank Arena. It certainly didn't feel, sound, or look like a game day in the so-called Center of the Hockey Universe, with the usual mosaic of scattered chatter, team swag, and long lines notably absent. The kind of energy only thousands of sports fans can provide was nonexistent. And, aside from being neatly fenced off, the Fairmont Royal York - home to seven Eastern Conference teams - didn't look any different than in "normal" times. The hotel, in its own way, is uneventful.
There was stillness during the health screening process, too. A masked man quizzed me on my COVID-19 symptoms, or lack thereof, and then pointed to what looked like a white and green toy gun at my forehead to read my temperature. It was quick, easy, painless. The concourse, always home to the smell of freshly popped popcorn, criminally overpriced beer, and bundles of nervous and excited energy, was dark and empty. No excess people.
In fact, the only person I recognized during a five-minute walk from the entrance to my seat was Sportsnet's Christine Simpson, who was ordering a beverage from the lone vendor open in the 300-level of the building.
Stillness from Section 306 as well, where fellow media members are located six, a dozen, or a hundred feet away. Stillness in the men's washroom, where the maintenance staff has crossed off two in every three stalls with red tape. Stillness as the game operations crew ran through audio and video components of the in-house and broadcast experience. Stillness as they tested a Black Lives Matter video on the A/V system hovering over center ice.
Stillness until the music kicked in to announce warmups. I can assure you, even in the fanless environment, game ops has not turned down the volume.