Home NHL In a Pair of ‘Hubs,’ the N.H.L. Postseason Has Been Anything but Neutral – The New York Times
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In a Pair of ‘Hubs,’ the N.H.L. Postseason Has Been Anything but Neutral – The New York Times

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TORONTO — The N.H.L. restart was less than three minutes old when Justin Williams, a Carolina Hurricanes forward, offered bare-knuckled proof that the fight was on to win the Stanley Cup, although the calendar read Aug. 1, the postseason’s start date.

Williams, 38, had had just eight fights in more than 1,400 career regular-season and playoff games. But at 2 minutes 44 seconds of the first period, in a qualification game against the Rangers at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Williams dropped the gloves against Ryan Strome, leaving Strome’s nose bloodied.

Masked because of coronavirus pandemic protocols, the ice-cleaning crew skated out to scrape the blood off the ice.

By the time the Stanley Cup qualifying round concluded on Sunday, 16 fighting majors had been assessed through 44 games, according to the N.H.L., a significant increase from the six fighting majors in each of the last two years of playoffs through the same number of games.

“It’s been nasty from the beginning,” Kevin Bieksa, a former N.H.L. defenseman and current Sportsnet TV analyst, said.

“I think the format has made these games intense,” Peter DeBoer, the Vegas Golden Knights’ coach, said after his club clinched the top seed in the Western Conference round-robin tournament with a 4-3 overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche. “That was a playoff game out there today, as far as intensity went.”

Before the qualifying round, there were fears that playing without live spectators in two antiseptic neutral environments, in Toronto and Edmonton, along with the pandemic-induced four-and-a-half-month layoff between the regular season and the postseason, would deliver sloppy play and little emotion.

Williams’s fight, after his teammate Brady Skjei’s crushing check on the Rangers’ Jesper Fast, set a tone that persisted in the two postseason hubs and that Carolina hoped to carry into its first-round series against the Boston Bruins.

“I think there is a lot of pent-up energy from a lot of players,” Williams said after Game 1 against the Rangers. “Months without playing a meaningful hockey game is tough for professional athletes. As much as we love the fans, there was a lot of intensity that was self-motivated.”

Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

On Tuesday, in Game 1 of their first-round matchup, the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Columbus Blue Jackets in five overtimes, the fourth-longest game in N.H.L. history. On Wednesday, Tampa Bay forward Tyler Johnson said he woke up “sore and tired,” having played more than 40 minutes the night before.

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Johnson made plans to rest, take a walk and do a light spin on the bike to keep his muscles loose in preparation for Game 2 on Thursday. Tampa Bay defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who said he sometimes loses four or five pounds in a regulation game, played more than 42 minutes against Columbus. By the fourth overtime period, he said that his muscles started seizing up and that going to the dressing room and sitting down made it worse.

The club’s medical staff paid special attention to players’ groins, hips and lower backs on Wednesday, and focused on getting players the proper nutrition.

“Today is kind of going to be their eight-period game,” Shattenkirk said of the team’s trainers. “They’re going to be working all day on us.”

Columbus Coach John Tortorella called off a scheduled practice and held a team meeting instead to rest his team. The Blue Jackets played in three overtime games in a six-day stretch, including an elimination game on Sunday in the only play-in series that went to five games.

Long overtimes are an occupational hazard in the N.H.L. playoffs, but this year’s postseason format offers players a few unique benefits. The aches and pains players collected during the regular season are a distant memory after the league’s pause. And not having to travel between games could help players stay fresher as they advance to later rounds.

During normal playoffs, injury information is notoriously hard to come by. This year, secrecy has been taken to a new level. Social distancing protocols mean that no reporters are allowed to attend practices or game-day skates to grasp who’s hurt and how severe an ailment might be. Privacy concerns surrounding the disclosure of confirmed coronavirus cases led the league to mandate a blanket classification of “unfit to play” that makes the old days of “upper-body” and “lower-body” injury reports seem quaintly detailed.

While the enclosed environments in Toronto and Edmonton have remained coronavirus-free since teams arrived on July 26, on-ice injuries have had an impact on some series. The Winnipeg Jets lost their top-line center, Mark Scheifele, and a key scorer, Patrik Laine, early in their play-in matchup against the Calgary Flames, and eventually lost in four games.

The Vancouver Canucks survived a hard-hitting, four-game play-in series against the Minnesota Wild that included two fights, 140 penalty minutes and injuries to Vancouver’s Tyler Toffoli, Micheal Ferland and Adam Gaudette, as well as to Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter.

Though the Canucks and the Wild were housed in close quarters at the Sutton Place Hotel in Edmonton, they said they had not taken advantage of the proximity to glean injury information about their opponents.

“It’s rare that you run into people with Minnesota masks and shirts on,” Vancouver goaltender Jacob Markstrom said. “You just keep to yourself and keep to your own teammates.”

“Maybe I should run into them at the elevator a little bit harder,” said Minnesota’s Marcus Foligno, who dropped the gloves with Ferland just 1:19 into Game 1 of their play-in series.

“There’s only one way out and one way into our hotel, and everybody has pretty much the same time on game day to be at the rink,” Foligno said before his team’s elimination. “You’ve got to put your head down and keep walking, and bring it to the ice.”

Curtis Rush reported from Toronto, and Carol Schram from Edmonton, Alberta.

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