The hits just keep coming. The NHL PR department is in full swing. They released the league’s 56-Game Schedule today on NHL.com. The season will open on 13 January 2021 with 5 stunners. The defending champs, who will be without their leading scorer, Nikita Kucherov. will face off against the Chicago Blackhawks in Tampa Bay.
The Montreal Canadians will renew their original six rivalry with the Toronto Maple Leafs in Scotiabank Arena. Also, in the North Division, the Vancouver Canucks will take on the Edmonton Oilers.
The East starts out with the supremacy of Pennsylvania being contested when the Pittsburg Penguins visit their cross-state opponents the Philadelphia Flyers.
Out West, the St. Louis Blues will get to have the season-ending match-up that COVID-19 spoiled when they take on old foes the Colorado Avalanche.
The NHL went out of their way to ring in the “Year of the OX” with a big bang.
The following night 11 matchups are slated, highlighted by the perennial Stanley Cup contender the New York Islanders invading Madison Square Garden to take on the New York Rangers. The other spotlight game pits the Calgary Flames against the Winnipeg Jets.
The 56-game schedule has all times set TBD, this being due to possible travel restrictions and stadium availabilities that the league must face in this era of COVID. The schedule is also set so there is flexibility. The X-factor will play into the schedule as much as it did during the last Major League Baseball season. Games had to be postponed due to COVID complications.
The League will be ready to play games in “neutral site” venues should it become necessary. Each division could have between one or two of these sites made available.
The NHL set the schedule so most teams will play two games against the same opponent. The reason for this is to cut down on travel costs. A by-product of the schedule could be greater animosity between teams throughout the season.
This shortened and condensed schedule with no pre-season games means every game counts every night. In the last two years, both St. Louis and Tampa Bay had less than optimal starts. Yet both teams made the Play-offs and were crowned Stanley Cup Champions.
This season a team that is under .500 at the middle of February, the quarter pole, will find the task of making the playoffs a difficult one. The X-factor this season is the X-factor. The unknown will affect the standing to a greater extent than in seasons past.
Nikita Kucherov out for the Regular Season.
The Tampa Bay Lighting are learning about the X-factor right now. NHL.com released that Nikita Kucherov would miss the regular season due to back surgery. Eduardo A. Encina of the Tampa Bay Times quoted general manager Julien BriseBois “Kucherov first reported discomfort in his hip on Dec. 3. He received treatment that included a cortisone injection, but the injury didn’t improve. a second opinion was sought, Everyone felt that it was the best thing to do to have the surgery now.”
The complexion of the East has changed. Tampa Bay is not the overwhelming favorite after losing their number one scorer for the last five years. The door is open for teams such as Nashville, Carolina, and Columbus.
The likelihood that some players opt-out in the next couple of days will also influence the individual teams.
The North is facing the possibility that the Canucks cannot play in Vancouver due to COVID restrictions. San Jose is also facing the same fate. The Sharks will open training camp in Arizona.
Each division will have multiple storylines.
My name for each division in (parentheses).
North: (Gordie Howe Division)
The first All-Canadian division since 1923 when divisions were first used. The original Canadian division had the New York Americans for the entire 12 years the division existed. 1934-35 the Ottawa Senators became the St. Louis Eagles for one season, before disbanding. this gives a new meaning to “Hockey Night in Canada!!”
The first two and original Canadian teams, Montreal, and Toronto, will be in the same division for the 41st time overall. Joining them will be the “newest” edition of the Ottawa Senators who have been in the same division with the “Habs” for their 28-year existence.
The Battle of Alberta, which heated up this past season will see eight matchups with the first being on Feb 6th when the Edmonton Oilers come calling on the Calgary Flames. The fuse is lit for this one!!! These games are must-see TV.
East: (Bobby Orr Division)
Three New York State teams in the same division for the first time in 50 years. The governor’s trophy will be hotly contested. The Islanders may have a much tougher time fighting these interstate foes than originally thought.
Taylor Hall of the Buffalo Sabres will get to huge chance to double down on himself. He took a one year deal to a last-place team. The Sabers have not made the playoffs in 9 years much to the chagrin of Melody Martin. Solid play and being in the Playoff race could net him the paycheck and contender he is looking for.
In the Land of Penn in-state rivals, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh will be in the same division for a 22nd straight season and 41st time overall since joining the NHL together in 1967-68. The Bragging rights fight starts opening night. the two teams are going in opposite directions. Many see this as the Flyer’s time. Sidney Crosby may have something to say about that.
Central: (Bobby Hull Division)
Two teams are entering their 96-year, Chicago and Detroit. Both teams are in a rebuilding stage and will renew a rivalry that is thick and rich with blood, teeth, and playoff losses. These two original 6 will be in the same division for the 47th time. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were unhappy with the direction of the team and they may try to rally the troops. Both could also look elsewhere.
This division will see for just the second time in the expansion era (beginning 1967-68) the two teams in the last Stanley Cup Finals match-up being in the same division. The first being 1980-81: NYI vs. PHI in Patrick Division. Dallas might be smelling blood in the water, so to speak.
Columbus returns to the Central Division. The Blue Jackets will renew rivalries with the Blackhawks, Predators, and Red Wings. John Tortorella has a good chance to make a big splash in this now winnable division. The Jackets made a name for themselves in sweeping the Presidents Cup trophy winners, Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019 and again making the playoffs in 2020 after some key parts signed elsewhere.
West: (Wayne Gretzky Division)
Three teams have reached the Stanley Cup Final in the past five seasons (STL: 2019; VGK: 2018; SJS: 2016). St. Louis winning in 2019. Vegas signed the Blues former captain Alex Pietrangelo to a long term deal. The Golden Knights are in a win-now mode.
Late starts for St. Louis and Minnesota have been the vein of both fan bases. How and if the league will mitigate these concerns could play a significant role in the final outcome. During the 2020 Stanley cup playoffs, St. Louis lost 3 of 3 late starts to the Vancouver Canucks.
Three of the original West locations are reunited. St. Louis and Los Angeles both were part of the NHL’s original expansion in 1967-68 along with Minnesota North Stars at the time before moving to Dallas. The Wild take the place of the Stars.
During an interview with the BlueNote Fan Report, former NHL defenseman Rick Zombo who played for both the Red Wings and Blues talked about the old playoff format and how it created rivalries. ” You hated each other on the ice,” he remarked. “playing each other 8 times in the regular season and then seeing them again in the first or second round” he then exclaimed, “It was a powder keg!!”
Scott Warmer of Fox Sports Midwest, when asked about the possibility of this divisional alignment creating that late 70’s to early 80’s Saturday night teeth on the ice and blood on the glass style of play stated, ” I did not think of that, but yea, it is highly likely that type of play could come back.”
Just think on December 23rd, 2020 the NHL has you excited and thinking about the game you love. The Game you have missed since September.
I know I am excited.
Guy “Hawaii Blues Fan” Bensing
Photo credits: NHL.com