NHL still navigating challenges one year after pausing season

March 12, 2020 was supposed to feature a 10-game slate in the NHL.

But with the coronavirus quickly spreading throughout North America and the world, it was becoming clearer in the days leading up to that Thursday that the NHL schedule might be disrupted.

Little did we know a year ago today that the Kings’ 3-2 win over the Senators would the final game of the 2019-20 regular season, and that hockey would not return for 143 days.

The morning after the NBA announced its season was suspended, the NHL was still discussing if it should follow. Practices around the league were canceled, and then the decision was made.

“Our goal is to resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent, so that we will be able to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup,” read the press release announcing that the NHL was pausing the 2019-20 season.

It’s been 365 days now since the pause, and the NHL was able to crown a champion after holding the most unique Stanley Cup Playoffs ever. Teams are now back to playing in their own arenas with fans slowly beginning to return in most markets.

[Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

But, like the rest of the world, the NHL is still dealing with COVID-19 pandemic on a daily basis.

“It’s almost hard to believe we’ve all been at this for a year and we’re still not done,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said during a media conference Thursday. “We have had to live this day to day. We have had to react to things on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s positive tests, whether it’s contact tracing, whether it’s postponing games and then rescheduling them, so we never really had an opportunity to say, “Boy, this is taking a long time.'”

Nearly 40 NHL games this season have been postponed due to virus-related issues and that has wreaked havoc on the schedule. Some teams have been forced into prolonged breaks and a remaining schedule that will see their depth tested.

While the games continue on, there are still questions about the future. 

• How will the NHL navigate the U.S.-Canada border closure when we get to the Stanley Cup Semifinals and the North Division winner has to face off against an American side? Talks continue with the Canadian government, but no deadline has been set. The third round is expected to begin mid-June.

“We’ve got a little bit of time to deal with this,” said Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “I can’t certainly promise any result, and we’ll work through the process and we’ll see what the result is and we’ll respond appropriately. But in terms of timeline, I don’t think there’s any kind of firm deadline that we have to meet to accomplish a change in plans if that’s necessary.”

[Sports have haltingly survived the pandemic, and highlighted it]

• Will the current division alignment stay? Can we expect the all-Canadian North Division to be a thing beyond this season?

Don’t hold your breath. The division alignment and playoff format are more than likely a one-season thing.

“What we’re finding is two-thirds of our fans enjoyed what we did this year and about two-thirds of the fans think we should go back to what we have had more traditionally,” said Bettman. “And I think that’s about right. I think fans were very understanding and even excited in some respects about what we had to do in this unique season, but I think our traditional alignment makes more sense and is more widely accepted.”

The unique scheduling matrix is something that might just stick around. It’s been widely praised, and it saves on travel costs and wear and tear on players. It’s something that should be discussed when planning for 2021-22 (which will include the Seattle Kraken).

• The Lake Tahoe outdoor games were scenic and gave us beautiful images of the Sierra Nevada in the distance from the 18th fairway at Edgewood Tahoe Resort. But outdoor games are money makers for everyone involved, and the lack of fans is not something the league sees happening in the future at these events.

“As beautiful as the setting was and the fact that Sunday night’s game I think was the most viewed game on NBC Sports Network ever, our game is about the fans,” Bettman said. “And as interesting, as beautiful, as intriguing as the setting was, I think our focus when we can will go back to having fans at the outdoor games in record numbers, which is what we’ve traditionally done.”

[2021 NHL Draft won’t be moved, possible lottery changes]

• Will NHL players participate in the 2022 Beijing Olympics? As part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the owners will allow players to play as long as a deal can be hashed out with the IIHF and IOC. Right now, however, the IOC’s focus is pulling off the Tokyo Games this summer.

“The IOC right now has its hands full in terms of finalizing plans for what Tokyo looks like and while they have noted that this issue — hockey and the NHL and NHL players’ potential participation — is kind of the radar screen and something that has to be dealt with, substantively they’re not yet in a position to do that,” Daly said. “So the [IOC] commitment is to engage with the IIHF in the not too distant future, but once they have done what they need to do with Tokyo.”

• More and more teams are welcoming a limited number of fans back into arenas for games. It’s nowhere near close to full, rocking buildings again, but it’s a sign that with the vaccine rollout, we’re slowing headed toward what we remember as “normalcy.”

“Obviously the key for us, at some point in time, for normalcy is having fans in our buildings and being able to host fans in our buildings,” Daly said. “Not in limited numbers, but in large numbers. The world keeps changing and we’ll change with it.

“Hopefully that happens sooner rather than later.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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    Bruins set NHL record with 12 straight home wins to start season

    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
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    BOSTON — The Boston Bruins set the NHL record for most home victories to start a season with their 12th straight, topping the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime with a power-play goal from David Pastrnak.

    The Bruins broke the mark of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    “That felt awesome,” Bruins first-year coach Jim Montgomery said. “We talked about it after the second (period) going into the third. There’s been a lot of great teams in this league and you’re able to set a precedent, break a record. It’s pretty special and it doesn’t happen if those guys don’t believe in themselves like they do.”

    Boston, which trailed 2-0 late in the second period, tied it with 9:33 left in regulation when David Krejci scored his second of the game on a shot from the right point.

    “It’s never fun being down going into the third, you’re sitting in here (in the locker room) trying to figure it out,” Krejci said. “You want to come out and do the job, something special on the line. It’s hard to win in this league. To get 12 in a row at home is pretty special.”

    In overtime, Carolina was playing shorthanded after being called for too many men on the ice when Pastrnak one-timed a pass from Brad Marchand inside the far post from above the left circle.

    “It was a big win for us, obviously, coming from behind,” Pastrnak said.

    Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Stefan Noesen each scored a power-play goal for Carolina, and Pyotr Kochetkov made 38 saves. The Hurricanes lost their fifth straight.

    In a rematch of last spring’s opening-round playoff series that the Hurricanes won in seven games, Carolina shutout the NHL’s highest scoring team for nearly two periods and jumped ahead a pair of power-play goals in the opening period.

    “We took too many penalties. That’s hurting us right now,” Kotaniemi said. “I think 5-on-5 we’re doing a really good job. We started good tonight and couldn’t keep that up.”

    Boston’s tying goal was originally disallowed because of goaltender interference on Nick Foligno but overturned on a coach’s challenge after it was ruled that he was nudged into the crease by Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce.

    Boston starting goaltender Linus Ullmark made 28 saves but had to leave with 13:03 left in the third period with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Teammate Connor Clifton had jumped on him to block a shot during a scramble. Jeremy Swayman made six stops in relief.

    Carolina’s Noesen scored at 6:34 in to make it 1-0. And with five minutes left in the period, Kotkaniemi collected the puck near the side of the net after Seth Jarvis‘ shot bounced off the back glass and slipped it inside the post at 15:05.

    Krejci scored for Boston with 31 seconds left in the second.

    Boston came in with a league-high 82 goals in 20 games (4.10 per game), but it was held to relatively few chances despite getting a 5-on-3 power-play advantage early on.

    TAKE NOTE

    The Bruins honored captain Patrice Bergeron, who recorded his 1,000th career point when the team was on the road against Tampa Bay, with a message on the Jumbotron. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

    Bergeron became just the fourth Bruin to reach the mark, joining Hall of Famers Ray Bourque (1,506), Johnny Bucyk (1,339) and Phil Esposito (1,012).

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Host the Calgary Flames.

    Bruins: Host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Predators postpone 2 games due to Nashville water main break

    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. —  The Nashville Predators postponed two home games because of a water main break that soaked their downtown arena.

    Hours after the Predators decided they couldn’t play against the Colorado Avalanche, the team announced it also postponed the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Makeup dates for the two games will be announced later.

    The NHL said the water main break that occurred “significantly impacted the event level” of Bridgestone Arena. Team locker rooms and the ice surface are on the event level.

    Predators President and CEO Sean Henry told reporters that the water in the event level ranged from 3 inches to 3 feet.

    “We’re assessing it right now. We’re remediating it,” Henry said. “The good thing is, the water got shut off, the city responded in a pretty fast manner. I don’t think anyone is ready for things like this the Friday after Thanksgiving.”

    Video posted by a WTVF-TV reporter shows the water puddled up on the main floor’s concourse area and the team store. The team was forced to close the store until further notice, pointing shoppers online for Black Friday specials.

    The Predators’ next home game is now scheduled for Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks.

    The water issue also resulted in a switch to a different venue for a college hockey game between Northeastern and Western Michigan. They also had been scheduled to play at Bridgestone Arena, a game that was moved to Ford Ice Center Bellevue.

    Rangers trade Ryan Reaves to Wild for 5th-round pick in 2025

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — The New York Rangers traded enforcer Ryan Reaves to the Minnesota Wild for a 2025 fifth-round pick.

    Reaves had been a healthy scratch for eight of the past 12 games for the Rangers. He gives struggling Minnesota some extra muscle and a veteran presence.

    The 35-year-old is signed through only the rest of this season at a $1.75 million salary cap hit. He has no points and 12 penalty minutes in 12 games of his second season with New York.

    Reaves has played in 869 NHL regular-season and playoff games for the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights and Rangers. He was with the Golden Knights during their inaugural season in 2017-18 when the reached the Stanley Cup Final.

    Toronto’s Morgan Rielly placed on long-term injured reserve

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    TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs placed defenseman Morgan Rielly on long-term injured reserve with a knee injury.

    Rielly was hurt in a collision with with New York forward Kyle Palmieri early in the third period of Toronto’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Islanders at home.

    Rielly has no goals and 16 assists in 20 games this season and is averaging 23 minutes of ice time.

    Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said following practice that the 28-year-old Rielly doesn’t need surgery, adding there’s no firm timeline for his return beyond the minimum 24 days and 10 games required for going on long-term injured reserve.

    Toronto’s defense is also missing Jake Muzzin with a neck injury and T.J. Brodie with an injured oblique.