NHL ready for 82-game season, wide-open race for Stanley Cup

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Drew Doughty needs a refresher going into his 13th NHL season.

When he ran into Patrick Kane before training camps opened, it was the first time he had seen the Chicago star around a rink in almost two years.

“I don’t even know who plays for what team anymore,” Doughty said, half-jokingly.

After two pandemic-shortened seasons, including one limited to divisional play to keep the coronavirus at bay, the NHL is set to drop the puck on a full 82-game slate and stage the traditional 16-team playoff for the Stanley Cup. Now at 32 teams with the addition of the expansion Seattle Kraken and fans back in every building, hockey is ready to get back to normal.

Opening night is Tuesday.

“Can’t wait,” Doughty said. “Really just can’t wait.”

Even Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk agrees with his longtime nemesis.

“Normal’s great,” Tkachuk said. “You don’t realize how much you miss it. … I’m excited to get back to the playing in front of fans. There’s nothing like it. That was so different. And as much as people say it’s just hockey at the end of the day, it is, but it’s a whole different world when you’re playing in front of a sold-out rink.”

The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup for the second time in 10 months at home in front of a sellout crowd, but some players — like reigning MVP Connor McDavid — haven’t played in front of fans since March 2020.

The Lightning celebrated with another boat parade and then said goodbye to several key contributors because of a salary cap squeeze and expansion. A three-peat hasn’t been done since the New York Islanders dynasty of the early 1980s.

“I certainly don’t think Tampa is out,” said McDavid, whose Oilers were swept in the first round of the playoffs. “They got a great core there, they got one of the best goalies in the world and some unbelievable defensemen, so they’re going to be a good team no matter what they put together there. But, yeah I think in this league everyone feels like they’ve got a shot.”

The best shot belongs to Colorado, the preseason Cup favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

After a second-round loss to Vegas, it could be the Avalanche’s year behind Nathan MacKinnon.

“It felt like we could win it last year, too, and the year before that,” MacKinnon said. “We’re in the mix, for sure. I think a lot of teams are.”

In the East, that includes the Lightning, Toronto and the Islanders, who were ousted by Tampa Bay in the semifinals the past two years. Out West, the Golden Knights and Avalanche could be on a collision course of two contenders poised to get over the hump and win it all.

Vegas reached the final as an expansion team in 2018, setting the bar unreasonably high for Seattle. But the Kraken certainly have the goaltender to get there in Philipp Grubauer, who was the backup when Washington beat the Golden Knights to hoist the Cup and Colorado’s starter the past three seasons.

“You can establish something that has never been there before,” Grubauer said. “You can be the rock and the pillar for for a team that’s never played a game. You’re making history by playing those games.”

The NHL would like to get back on track by playing every game when it’s scheduled; 51 were postponed last season for virus-related reasons. COVID-19 is still a concern, but there’s reason for hope given that roughly 98% of players — and all coaches and staff — are fully vaccinated.

“We’re hoping it’s normal,” MacKinnon said. “Hopefully we get through it: 82 games, no pauses.”

That would allow hockey’s best to go to Beijing in February for the first Olympics with NHL players since 2014. Only pandemic conditions worsening would stop that

“Everybody clearly wanted that to happen and I’m glad,” said Capitals defenseman John Carlson, who is likely to play for the U.S. “It’s unique. It’s the pinnacle of sports. I think it’s great for the players because we all want to do it, but it’s also, I think, just unbelievable for the sport.”

The sport lost something with empty or partially full arenas. Montreal’s Nick Suzuki felt numb playing without fans in the stands and said, “I don’t know how we played without them.” Limited capacity is possible in some places in Canada to start the season, but protocols are loosened, team dinners and fun are back in the NHL.

“Just to have the fans and that energy back in the building that you can feed off of and a normal routine,” Minnesota captain Jared Spurgeon said. “You’re back into the thick of it.”

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