Jan 13, 2021 - Sports

Hockey returns under the shadow of coronavirus

Graphic: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Graphic: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The NHL's abbreviated season begins tonight, with the coronavirus already casting a shadow of uncertainty over the 2021 campaign.

Driving the news: 27 players from nine teams tested positive for COVID-19 during training camp. 17 were on the Stars, who have had their first three games postponed.

  • Looking ahead: Barring any cancellations, the NHL plans to cram 868 games into 116 consecutive nights.

Format: The league has realigned into four divisions, including an all-Canadian group. To limit travel, the 56-game regular season and first two playoff rounds are exclusively divisional play.

  • East: Bruins, Capitals, Devils, Flyers, Islanders, Penguins, Rangers, Sabres
  • Central: Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, Lightning, Panthers, Predators, Red Wings, Stars
  • West: Avalanche, Blues, Coyotes, Ducks, Golden Knights, Kings, Sharks, Wild
  • North: Canadiens, Canucks, Flames, Jets, Maple Leafs, Oilers, Senators

Storylines:

  • (Almost) no fans: The Stars, Panthers and Coyotes are the only teams that will start the season with fans in attendance, albeit limited numbers.
  • The battle for Canada: A Canadian team hasn't won the Stanley Cup in 27 years. They'll fight amongst themselves to break that curse, with the North Division featuring plenty of rivalries — and lots of cross-country road trips.
  • Sponsors everywhere: The NHL sold corporate sponsorships for each division (Scotia North, Honda West, Discover Central, MassMutual East) and teams will have advertisements on their helmets for the first time.
  • Legends in new colors: Longtime Bruin Zdeno Chara is now on the Capitals, and longtime Shark Joe Thornton is now on the Maple Leafs. Weird.
  • New offside rules: A player's skate will no longer have to be in contact with the blue line to be considered "onside" during a play. The "plane" of the blue line will now extend upward, like a goal line in football.
  • Homeless Sharks: The Sharks don't currently have access to their home rink due to restrictions on gathering in California's Santa Clara County. They'll play their first eight games on the road.

Tonight:

  • Penguins vs. Flyers, 5:30pm ET (NBCSN)
  • Blackhawks vs. Lightning, 8pm (NBCSN)
  • Blues vs. Avalanche, 10:30pm (NBCSN)
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