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More Than Ever, the Winner Will Earn It

July 29, 2020, 9:31 AM ET [2 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
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Inside the bubbles, things apparently are bubbly. No positive tests Monday. And the trickiest part-when the players could go home at night-is over.

The Penguins and Flyers got through a practice game Tuesday without a sneeze, nothing to sneeze at. David Pastrnak is pronounced good to go. All the guys you most want to see who will not be allowed to see their families for weeks.

The players’ quarters in Edmonton and Toronto apparently are even harder to get into than the 1976-77 Canadiens’ zone. Since the atmosphere in empty arenas will be devoid of electricity, they put it all in the fences to keep the players in, for their own good, of course. Over what could be as long as 10 weeks, teammates might get a little tired of each other sure, but with Steve Mason gone, it’s less likely any Flyer will make a run for it. Always possible that somebody could put in his bed a dummy of Brandon Manning and tunnel out at night, but that would will take more years than even a Sabres’ rebuild.

So these guys are stuck, especially the Penguins with a matchup against a playoff-unworthy Montreal team that always could get lucky for three games. Give the organizers credit, there are sushi places within the restricted areas in Toronto but word is that Internet is terrible at the Edmonton JW Marriott so our heroes might be more cutoff from communication than were Mike Sullivan and Phil Kessel. While everything may be comfy and clean, chances are this existence is going to get older than even Joe Thornton. They are going to be stuck in there even longer than in his Carolina days it took Ron Francis to make a trade.

Medical professionals should be standing by to check for sanity, in addition to Covid 19. Seriously, in about four weeks it’s going to be a considerable consolation for second round losers to be able to go home.

To minimize distractions, it’s been decades-long standard playoff practice for teams to stay in hotels the night before home games. That’s a long way from a full quarantine though. These guys are going to go even longer without a hug than Zack Kassian at a Tkachuk family reunion. With 24 teams competing, some of them will be home faster than a milk run to the 7-11. Other clubs, like the President’s Trophy-winning Bruins, might next see their babies at high school graduation.

“We’re very lucky and fortunate to have that opportunity and to have the jobs doing what we do,” said Brad Marchand over the weekend. "There are a lot of people that aren’t able to work right now and there’s a lot of people that haven’t been [getting] paid.

“We have a short number of years that we can do this and we have to make the most of it and take advantage of it. We’ll get homesick and lonesome at times, but it’s part of the job. Maybe it’s not what we expected, but you have to go through some adversity sometimes. At the end of the day, that is sometimes where you find the biggest reward.”

The team that best understands that last sentence probably will be the last one standing in early October. We can speculate all we want about the effects of the four month break on younger teams or older teams or structured teams or freewheeling teams; hold our noses at the chance of clubs that were playing terribly on March 12 getting up to speed faster than the ones whose surges were rudely interrupted but there is no crying in hockey, except maybe by Garth Snow. This year, more than ever maybe, the winners must adapt.

No fans? The players will just have to be their own best fans. Behn Wilson certainly never had a problem with that. But it’s a game of ebbing and flowing emotions and this time you gotta bring your own juice.

“What the fans do is really sway the momentum during games.” said Marchand. “[The league is] not going to be able to replicate that play-to-play like a fan base would during a game.
“The way they try to pick you up when you’re not playing well or really push you forward when chasing a goal from behind, that’s really where the home-ice advantage comes into play.

“There won’t be any of that. So there’s going to have to be an internal drive. We’re all going to be in the same boat and you just need to find a way to win.”

A best-of-five first round necessitates getting up to speed from a four-month standing start quickly, as is an Olympic tournament, much easier done in a February than an August. That said, the least predictable round every year is the first and now there is little to choose between teams anyway, so the results may not be any more whacky than usual. Same as in the spring, if a favorite goes down it will be because it wasn’t as good as advertised.

It’s not a leap to suggest the club than handles whatever is thrown at it—bad breaks, injuries, swings of results within a series–most professionally wins every year. This is not going to change through peculiar circumstances. Adjust or die, as always. Four rounds–with or without fans or regular season run-up are just too hard to win to think an unworthy team can ever do it.

You want a prediction? Okay, Tampa Bay will have the post-season this year that most of us expected it to have last year and win it all. But that’s just a guess, nothing guaranteed like this: We will not end up looking skeptically at this year’s champion any more than anyone did the Devils in 1995 or the Blackhawks in 2013, the last two from shortened seasons.

One caveat to alter this year: Players who were gone for the duration on March 12 have had a chance to heal. But almost every team has one or two key guys like that. To make good on these fresh starts, winners will have to provide their own enthusiasm, turning what is already sport’s hardest grind into an even greater endurance test than usual. So the team that handles things in the most mature manner will win the Cup, no different than any other season.
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