March is usually synonymous with one thing for hockey fans: a push for the playoffs. This year, however, there are more pressing matters than who wins the Atlantic Division. There are lives at stake, and sports are on the back-burner.
One thing remains certain. The outbreak of COVID-19, or “coronavirus,” a life-threatening respiratory illness, has taken its toll on the National Hockey League. It will drastically mold the conclusion of the campaign, if it concludes at all, with the playoffs in limbo. So, what does the delay of the regular season mean for the league, and the Tampa Bay Lightning specifically?
Playoffs a pipe dream?
The Lightning had one expectation entering this season: to hoist the Stanley cup come June. Now, that fantasy is looking like it may not come to fruition, and not because the Bolts lost a hockey game.
There have only been two times in the NHL’s rich history that the Stanley Cup hasn’t been awarded. The first was in 1919 due to the Spanish Flu pandemic, and, more recently, the second was a result of the 2005 lockout. This year, there’s concern the league’s hardware won’t be handed out, either.
Pause, resume, or power off?
Originally, the NHL pledged their hiatus was no more than a “pause.” Now, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that no gatherings with 50 people or more take place for the next eight weeks, that means no hockey until late May at the earliest.
While league commissioner Gary Bettman has asked NHL arenas to extend availability through July, the playoffs alone are over two months long. That means there is no wiggle room here. If the virus is still forcing countries into a state of emergency, closing borders and schools in May, it’s hard to believe the NHL would even consider resuming.
If they do, even without fans, it’s a lofty proposal to assume that arenas would be able to extend availability through August, and a loftier one to believe the league would permit such a short offseason. Point being, fans will be lucky to see hockey this season. That begs the question, what if they do?
If the season does resume, sources indicate there will be an altered playoff format. Elliotte Friedman, for one, was quoted on Sportsnet 590 saying “league officials are recognizing how unique this season is, and is willing to consider unique playoff formats.” Per Friedman, the format being discussed would allow 24 teams into the playoffs. That’s opposed to the usual 16. The top four seeds in each conference would receive a first round bye. Each series would be a best of three.
Lightning in a bottle
In short, the Lightning season is in jeopardy. Though, if it does resume, the Bolts are in a decent spot. They are currently second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Bruins. That means they’d get the aforementioned top-four bye. They’d also have a shot at playing a team that would’ve been outside the regular playoff picture. Not a bad setup. Of course this is all pending hockey continuing, which is a major question mark. What isn’t a question mark? The health of the Lightning back end after an eight week layoff, but that’s another story, for another day.
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