SUNRISE, Fla. – We knew going into the 2020-21 NHL season that things were going to be far from the status quo.
The ongoing, and once again surging coronavirus pandemic was going to produce unknown hurdles and obstacles throughout the condensed campaign. There was no denying that.
When and how the virus impacted the league would come into focus as incidents and issues presented themselves, but it sure didn’t take long for the first major occurrence to shut down a locker room.
Six days before the season was set to begin, eight members of the Dallas Stars, including six players, tested positive for COVID-19, leading to the closing of the team’s facility as a precaution. That number ballooned up to 17 players when the league announced its final training camp testing results on Jan. 12, the eve of the regular season.
The Stars’ season wouldn’t begin until at least Jan. 22, which meant their two-game schedule opening set in Sunrise against the Panthers would be postponed.
Florida’s Opening Night was pushed back three days, and the league announced how they would finagle the schedule to fit the delayed games against Dallas in an already tight timetable.
For the Panthers, that meant a few more back-to-back games.
An inconvenience for sure, but that was to be expected.
Then came the second COVID situation to throw a wrench into Florida’s plans for playing hockey against people not wearing the same red and blue practice sweaters they’d been seeing for weeks.
Just hours before the Panthers were set to embark on the team’s first road trip of the year, the NHL announced that the Carolina Hurricanes would not play any games through Saturday, Jan. 23 due to five players being added to the COVID list.
That meant another two Panthers games would have to be rescheduled and crammed into the time between now and the final date for the regular season, which the league has set as May 8.
“Obviously it’s going to be challenging,” said defenseman Aaron Ekblad. “I think it’s adapt and be successful or die. That’s the way it goes. We don’t want to die as a team here, we want to be malleable in situations like this and really just find a way to succeed no matter what.”
Can you hear that? It’s the sound of precious days off disappearing from the Panthers’ schedule.
“It is what it is,” said defenseman Anton Stralman. “It’s out of our control and we just have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. That’s really all you can do. You can’t put a lot of focus on it. You just have to move on and have fun. I think everybody’s excited to be back playing hockey and if a few games here and there are going to be postponed or whatever, so be it.”
As it stands, Florida will have played just two games during the first 13 games of the season. That means the team will need play 54 games in the span of 103 days.
It’s a big ask of NHL players, though many have been quick to point out that they experienced schedules like this during their days playing junior hockey or overseas.
At the end of the day, complaining isn’t going to make a difference. You lace up your skates, grab your stick and go to work.
“We can’t really control it, so why spend energy on it?” Panthers winger Patric Hornqvist asked rhetorically. “That’s my approach to life. If you can’t control it, don’t worry about it. Just focus on the next day and hopefully we can play against Columbus next game.”
Currently the Panthers have nine back-to-back sets on the schedule, but that’s before the two postponed games against Carolina are factored back into the mix.
Ultimately it’s going to fall on head coach Joel Quenneville to find ways to rest his players down the stretch, when the team will hopefully be pushing toward a postseason berth.
“It is what it is,” Quenneville said Friday. “Days off are going to be at a premium as we go along, as will being rested and keeping ourselves as fresh as possible. Morning skates might be going away as you go along in the year as well, so there’s a lot of different things we can do to stay fresh. Again, they’d rather play than practice.”
Quenneville said he’ll be utilizing the team’s depth as the season goes on and will consider giving “older guys” a night off on some of those “back-to-backers.”
He also suggested the league was looking at adding the postponed games against Carolina to “the back end of games,” meaning more games on consecutive days.
Bottom line…Florida is going to be playing a lot of hockey in a short amount of time, more than any other team in the NHL (other than the Stars, who will finally play their first game Friday night in Dallas).
Will it be tiring? Yes.
Will it be grueling at times? More than likely.
Will the players use it as an excuse? Don’t count on it.
“You don’t worry about it now,” Ekblad said. “We have to trust that the league is going to do the right thing with scheduling and hopefully push things as much as they can, and give us as much rest as we possibly can. We’re not going to be playing three-in-three’s I don’t think, but even in that case, we have to do what we have to do.”
Florida’s schedule resumes on Tuesday, Jan. 26 when they play the first of two games in three days against the Columbus Blue Jackets, followed by a weekend back-to-back in Detroit against the Red Wings on Jan. 30 and 31.