The NHL returned this weekend to restart its season with a 24-team postseason tournament, featuring both a round-robin series for the top seeds and a best-of-five qualification round for the others. The league adopted an “All Day Hockey” approach, with puck drop of the first game on Saturday at noon ET, and start times staggered through the day; in total, there were 10 games played from Saturday afternoon through late Sunday night.
ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski watched every moment of every game and reports back with this diary.
Saturday, Aug. 1
Noon ET: Wow, 20 teams in 10 games over the next 48 hours without leaving the house. Would be very intimidating were it not for the fact that I’ve unfortunately been training for this since March.
12:08 p.m. ET: Henrik Lundqvist is a surprise starter for the Rangers, as rookie goalie sensation Igor Shesterkin is unfit to play. The NHL announced that this is Lundqvist’s 128th consecutive playoff start, the third-longest streak in league history. The NHL has also announced that the qualification round is not “the playoffs” and has actually left a blank space where “Playoffs” will be written under “Stanley Cup” on the ice, so this is very confusing. Whatever you call them, it’s going to be very interesting to see how the 38-year-old star changes the dynamic for the Rangers.
12:10: p.m. ET: The Rangers give up a goal in the first 61 seconds.
12:28 p.m. ET: There has been a lot of speculation about how the players would be affected by having been off for nearly five months, and I think we have our answer: They’re all distractingly tan for this point in the season.
1:22 p.m. ET: Adam Fox‘s tripping penalty while the Rangers were already on the power play was the 11th penalty called in the first 30 minutes of Game 1 … so maybe it’s not a playoff game? Jokes aside, NHL officials are notorious for calling games tightly during the early part of the season to reestablish the rules for players coming back from the offseason, so maybe the same thing holds for the pause. Apologies to the casual fans tuning in. It’s not always like this!
1:26 p.m. ET: They keep playing this Bud Light commercial with fans being overjoyed that sports have returned, and I feel like someone should have had a talk with the baseball fans before they agreed to this.
1:33 p.m. ET: Mika Zibanejad scores the Rangers’ first goal of the play … er, postseason. The artificial crowd noise DJ hits the “cheering a goal” button for the road team, which is either a gaffe or a shrewd acknowledgement that there are always Rangers fans in the building wherever they play.
1:45 p.m. ET: Taking their lead from the NFL draft, the NHL invited fans to record videos of themselves cheering and chanting that were going to be played in the arena for the home team. They showed Hurricanes fans while Carolina was on the power play. Alas, none of them could be heard screaming “SHOOOOOOOOOT!”
A glimpse at the fan hype videos the NHL asked for, that they’re pumping into the empty areas. pic.twitter.com/RiEr6aFZ9y
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 1, 2020
2:38 p.m. ET: Hurricanes 3, Rangers 2. There were 16 minor penalties, making it a disjointed affair. The first official game continued the trend from the exhibition games: 11 of 12 “pre-postseason” games went under the over/under total. No Storm Surge for the Hurricanes to entertain the prerecorded fans on the video screens. NHL binge life update: Had a jalapeno chicken sausage, egg and cheese sandwich and three cups of Ugandan coffee. Might need to hit the Peloton during the next game.
3:08 p.m. ET: Look I’m not trying to say the playoffs are predetermined. I just have a passion for graphic design:
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 1, 2020
3:17 p.m. ET: The Oilers and Blackhawks stand in a circle at center ice to honor frontline workers and also … racial injustice. But just when you expected the NHL to give the latter topic a meek acknowledgement that appeases all “sides” — the players were literally straddling the middle — out comes Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, representing the Hockey Diversity Alliance, to give an incredibly heartfelt speech that mentioned Black Lives Matter and Breonna Taylor by name. He then took a knee during the U.S. national anthem. Not a single player on the ice joined him, many of whom had released statements two months ago pledging support to minority players in the league. The NHL and the NHLPA deserve credit for going beyond expectations on addressing racial injustice on Saturday afternoon’s national broadcast, as a speech from a player is much more effective than “We Skate For Black Lives” ads around the rink. But that final image — Dumba, demonstrating alone — undercut it.
Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba addresses social injustices and how everyone can be better before the Blackhawks take on the Oilers.
3:37 p.m. ET: After Edmonton went up 1-0, the Blackhawks struck right back 3:17 later with a Dylan Strome goal that he banked off of goalie Mike Smith after Smith flubbed the puck. Oilers coach Dave Tippett surprised many by giving Smith the start in Game 1. He has the most postseason experience but was demonstrably the weaker goalie than Mikko Koskinen this season. This goal was a cause for concern.
3:41 p.m. ET: 2-1 Blackhawks. Much concern.
3:47 p.m. ET: 3-1 Blackhawks. All the concern.
3:53: p.m. ET: 4-1 Blackhawks. Who among us, besides the ones with access to Mike Smith’s stats, could have seen this coming?
4:07 p.m. ET: The schedule staggering ends, as our third game begins.
4:24 p.m. ET: Florida hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996, which means 23-year-old Islanders star Mathew Barzal has known a world only where the Panthers never reached the second round. The Islanders are going to play an efficient but conservative style, especially in the opening game. Meanwhile, Mike Smith is back in for the Oilers to start the second period, so this game has been demoted to the second screen. Which is very March Madness, to be honest: My iPad is the TruTV of the NHL postseason.
Three screen experience for Day 1. pic.twitter.com/o3jgPgKKbM
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 1, 2020
4:36 p.m. ET: 5-2 Blackhawks. Mike Smith leaves the net for the Oilers, and the net breathes a sigh of relief.
5:04 p.m. ET: The smartest thing the NHL did in this restart was deciding to treat the hub arenas as giant television studio sets. Hockey is a perfect empty arena sport for TV: the stage behind the player benches and the tarps over the seats gives the cavernous barn intimacy, and there are reasons to peak behind that scenery at the open sections of the building — it’s not as if the cameras have to track the pucks in the air the way they do fly balls in baseball. The natural cacophony of the game provides its own soundtrack, sweetened on the broadcast by artificial crowd noise and the usual arena song playlist. Through five hours of this, I’m startled by the normalcy of it. Bubble hockey is the Beyond Meat ™ of the NHL.
5:53 p.m. ET: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4. Rookie forward Dominik Kubalik finishes with more points (5) than either Connor McDavid (3) or Leon Draisaitl (3). A result that we’re sure will not cause a complete overreaction to Chicago’s Stanley Cup prospects, Jonathan Toews‘s resurgence or the Oilers’ worthiness as a contender. Although it should justifiably cause a reassessment of what Dave Tippett sees in a goaltender. NHL binge life update: Jerk-style plantain chips and supremely spicy hummus. The couch cushion has been reshaped to my body’s contours.
6:22 p.m. ET: The media availability during the NHL restart is being held remotely on Zoom. Just like how both locker rooms are open at the same time normally, availability for the Oilers and Blackhawks were held at the same time. I watched Kubalik talk about his five-point night, clicked a link, asked Connor McDavid whether the Oilers took the Blackhawks too lightly, clicked a link, asked Jonathan Toews about Dumba’s speech, clicked a link, and watched Tippett defend starting Smith, clicked a link, and saw the end of Chicago coach Jeremy Colliton‘s video conference. All while watching the Islanders lead the Panthers in the third period. Finally, sports journalism has caught up to my attention span.
6:34 p.m. ET: Islanders 2, Panthers 1. The Islanders did what the Islanders do, and also somehow managed to hold Florida to only one power play when every other series is basically being played on special teams. The most encouraging sign for the Panthers: Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky looked like the guy they spent $70 million to sign rather than the guy who allowed pucks to take shelter behind him for most of the season. NHL binge life update: There are 90 minutes before the Penguins game. Time to pack in several hours of life into that span.
8:18 p.m. ET: As the Penguins and Canadiens stand on separate blue lines before the game, the arena has another “END RACISM” presentation, including a video that featured minority players in the league and mentioned Black Lives Matter and that George Floyd was “murdered.” (Like the one shown earlier, it was branded to the Hockey Diversity Alliance.) Maybe that’s the minimum to be expected from the NHL, given all that’s happened. But as someone who has watched hockey stumble like a youth player with a broken skate on social issues for the past two decades, this is beyond my expectations. Credit to Kim Davis, the league’s VP on diversity issues, and the Hockey Diversity Alliance on getting the NHL there.
— NHL (@NHL) August 2, 2020
8:20 p.m. ET: They couldn’t get anthem singer Michael Bublé in the bubblé?
8:22 p.m. ET: No word if Sidney Crosby‘s pregame speech to the Penguins consisted of holding up the Oilers’ score and saying “can we not?”
9:38 p.m. ET: Four games into this, and I’m really missing the spontaneity of the home crowd. Having those video screens with the fans at the start of the power play and when the Penguins scored is fine. But I’ve been in Pittsburgh when the Penguins are trailing by a goal and Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are skating out to start the power play. It’s their roar of motivation, and anticipation, that the artificial crowd noise can’t replicate. Not to mention the “Let’s Go Pens” chants that start up to help pick up the energy.
10:06 p.m. ET: Speaking of the energy level, I’ve heard this theory a few times today about the lack of any crowd in the arena: “If a beer leaguer can motivate themselves without a crowd, so can an NHLer.” While that might be true … their motivation is beer. Hence the name. That’s why they don’t need fans. They have beer.
10:46 p.m. ET: Extra hockey between the Penguins and Canadiens! Off to the West …
10:49 p.m. ET: Oh dear. Mark Scheifele gets injured. It has been a fairly injury-free day, which is impressive considering the varying levels of conditioning for the returning players. This was just an unfortunate injury, with Matthew Tkachuk finishing his check. But since it was Matthew Tkachuk, we get another fight in the qualification round:
Blake Wheeler doesn’t think Mark Scheifele’s injury was an accident. Come to the aid of his teammate and fights Matthew Tkachuk pic.twitter.com/7Aw5lZcL1S
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) August 2, 2020
11:07 p.m. ET: Back in Toronto … to underscore the “spontaneity” problem. Jake Guentzel draws a penalty in overtime and the artificial noise reaction for the “home team” would have made an icing sound deafening. Gotta fix that.
11:14 p.m. ET: Jonathan Drouin flubs a penalty shot after Conor Sheary flubbed a penalty shot near the end of regulation. Whichever team loses this game is going to absolutely slander the ice conditions, rightly or wrongly. (“The ice was chippy, especially in the overtime, but both teams had to play on it,” Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz would later say.)
11:25 p.m. ET: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2. Wow. Both No. 12 seeds win Game 1, as Jeff Petry scores in overtime for Montreal. The crowd … roars? They really need a “frustrated indifference rather than outright booing” button to capture how Pittsburgh would have reacted to that. NHL binge life update: After watching the second period on the Peloton, dinner was a plant-based burger and sweet potato fries dunked in Sriracha BBQ sauce. I’ve watched four hockey games, and the chocolate-covered pretzels have somehow remained in the pantry. The Canadiens aren’t the only winners here.
11:26 p.m. ET: I am now eating chocolate-covered pretzels.
1:35 a.m. ET: Flames 4, Jets 1. The day ends with its best off-ice moment, as Jets coach Paul Maurice cuts a wrestling promo on Tkachuk, accusing him of intentionally kicking Scheifele to injure him on “an absolutely filthy disgusting hit.” Day 2 has a lot to live up to!
Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice says Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk’s hit on Mark Scheifele was “filthy” and “disgusting” as well as intentional.
Sunday, Aug. 2
2 p.m. ET: Day 2 begins with the big goalie reveal for Nashville, as 25-year-old Juuse Saros gets the start over 37-year-old franchise standard-bearer Pekka Rinne, breaking an 89-game playoff starting streak for Rinne — unless this isn’t really a playoff game yet it might always be one. These two teams, playing this early, on a game shown on USA Network … TSN’s Travis Yost said it best: “This game has strong Northwestern vs. Iowa Big Noon Kickoff” vibes. NHL binge life update: The late start afforded me the chance to go out for chilaquiles con carnitas, which is now sitting in my stomach like “el bloque.”
I’m not saying this is the reason the Coyotes are up 2-0. I’m just saying more NHL coaches should dress like venture capitalists on the bench. pic.twitter.com/Rw5swWrhrd
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 2, 2020
2:46 p.m. ET: They played DMX’s “Party Up” at the start of Nashville’s power play, as is tradition at Predators home games. This is great, but yet another reminder of how they can’t quite capture the energy of a live crowd, because Predators fans go absolutely berserk at Bridgestone Arena in these situations. One of my favorite in-arena moments in the NHL.
3:20 p.m. ET: Boston’s Todd Angilly appears on giant video screens to sing the anthems, in what would have been a perfect opportunity for a Rene Rancourt hologram. The Bruins link arms during the songs, and the NHL still has “We Skate For Black Lives” on its camera-facing video screens.
4:06 p.m. ET: After Ryan Ellis scores to cut the Predators’ deficit to 4-2, the video screens show Nashville fans pointing and chanting “It’s All Your Fault!” at the opposing goalie, as is tradition. This is the closest we’ve come to an NHL-endorsed, less-than-positive fan reaction in one of these games. It’s not booing, but it’s something.
4:37 p.m. ET: Coyotes 4, Predators 3. As we all expected, the Coyotes and Predators hit the over-5.5 goals just 20 seconds in the third period, and generally play one of the most entertaining games of the weekend. Meanwhile …
4:38: p.m. ET: The Flyers are up 2-0 on the Bruins, and the difference of intensity between the qualification round games and these gussied-up scrimmages is stark — it’s like following up the El Toro coaster at Six Flags with that plastic horse that mechanically undulates outside of a supermarket. The top four teams wanted this round to give them competitive games before the round of 16, after the cautionary tale of the 2019 Lightning. We can confirm these are in fact games; “competitive” might be a stretch.
4:58 p.m. ET: When Chris Wagner of the Bruins scored, the NHL put up video of dejected Flyers staring blankly at their cameras. Granted, the actual reaction from Philly fans would have been muted by the five-second broadcast delay, but this was fun. Although we’ll throw a challenge flag on the fact that the Bruins were the home team, and this gimmick should be reserved for when the road team scores.
Was doing ARI/NSH interviews when this happened but I really hope we get more sad fans when the other team scores. pic.twitter.com/FesjWl6ypW
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 2, 2020
5:54 p.m. ET: Flyers 4, Bruins 1. Friends, I’m about 17 hours of hockey into this and the Philly-Boston game was the first one that had me wondering what was going on with The Food Network. (Spoiler: Something involving Guy Fieri, a diner and bacon grease.) I imagine the quality of the round-robin games will vary based on player fitness, quality of ice — brutal in this game — and situation, like if the top seed is on the line. But I cared about this game about as much as the Bruins did. NHL binge life update: An espresso poured into a coffee and injected right into my eyes.
6:48 p.m. ET: This round-robin game is a tick up from the Philly-Boston game, at least in the sense that the Avalanche throwing everything at Jordan Binnington and then watching it all go to waste thanks to a David Perron power-play goal is an interesting narrative.
7:36 p.m. ET: The Blues coaches also keep it casual in the bubble, opting for the official team zip ups. I would be fine if the NHL instituted a rule that allowed coaches from the Stanley Cup-winning teams to wear whatever they wanted for the next season. Even, like, tank tops. Looking at you, Joel Quenneville.
More good bench fits. St. Louis with these zip ups pic.twitter.com/wWRznV5wZY
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 2, 2020
8:15 p.m. ET: A number of fans in the U.S. apparently don’t have access to this qualification-round game. It’s blacked out on the NHL app because it’s being shown nationally on NHL Network, before it becomes “bonus coverage” on NBCSN. Many streaming services don’t offer NHL Network. Fox Sports Columbus has had to explain in more than a few tweets how to access the game locally, as the network had a Cincinnati Reds postgame show preempting the game. Anyway, enjoy the playoffs, everyone. NHL binge life update: I found an old Cinnamon Toast Crunch snack bar in my pantry and I dunked it in peanut butter. I’m not proud.
8:45 p.m. ET: As I watch the Avs and Blues, I checked out the radio feed of the Leafs vs. Jackets game. We’ve talked a lot about the way the NHL looks and sounds in an empty arena on television. On radio … you’d never know this was being held in an empty arena. It was actually remarkable.
8:55 p.m. ET: We’re here for the NHL’s subtle acknowledgements about how awkward this all is:
Steve Mayer told me the NHL was going to do some cheeky things about playing in the bubble. This is great. pic.twitter.com/Klw6xGgqzD
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 3, 2020
9:02 p.m. ET: Avalanche 2, Blues 1. Buzzer-beater! Best non-overtime finish of the weekend as Nazem Kadri scored a power-play goal with 0.1 seconds left to give the Avs the win over St. Louis. There was a lengthy review of the goal. When it was announced it was a good goal, there was no reaction that we’ve come to expect, because there was no crowd. The ref was about a second away from saying “please clap.”
9:45 p.m. ET: NHL binge life update: I wanted a pizza and wings. But as penance for taking over the living room for 48 hours of hockey, I happily agreed to fried tofu with snow peas. It’s the least I could do.
10:05 p.m. ET: Cam Atkinson scores a toilet-tissue soft goal against Frederik Andersen in a game where the Maple Leafs’ top offensive players were being stifled by a blue-collar defense and goalie Joonas Korpisalo. So, basically, what every pessimistic Leafs fan was thinking was going to happen for the last few weeks.
10:06 p.m. ET: Did the Jackets not bring the cannon to the bubble? Was it confiscated at the border, as evidence of a potential invasion?
10:32 p.m. ET: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0. Toronto got one power play in the game. Last year, when Columbus swept the superior Lightning, they held Tampa to three power plays over the last three games. When asked about the result, Toronto’s Zach Hyman said, “They play playoff hockey. This is playoff hockey.” Indeed.
10:37 p.m. ET: Matt Dumba raised his fist during both the U.S. and Canadian national anthems, after kneeling only for the U.S. anthem after his pregame speech on Saturday. This was pointed out by many of his detractors. “My biggest regret is not doing it for the Canadian national anthem as well. Because there is a lot of light that needs to be shed on what’s happening in Canada and the oppression that First Nations people have felt here for hundreds of years,” he said. “I was disappointed, looking back on it. I knew the reasons why I knelt. But in the moment, it just happened like that.”
11:37 p.m. ET: I know most of his poetry would have been swallowed up by the swear filter, but I feel like we were robbed by not having Bruce Boudreau coaching in an empty arena.
11:54 p.m. ET: This is my favorite game of the day so far. It feels like a playoff game. The Wild get unfairly labeled as a boring team when they’ve been anything but since Dean Evason took over. But they also defend expertly.
12:53 a.m. ET: Vancouver’s Micheal Ferland checks Luke Kunin into the Wild bench. Minnesota’s Ryan Hartman holds Ferland’s stick, preventing him from rejoining the play. Ferland then gives him a “just tell me how much the fine is going to be” spear. This is actually the second-dumbest thing Ferland did in Game 1, superseded by his first-period fight, in which a player limited to 14 NHL games this season because of a concussion and post-concussion symptoms inexplicably dropped the gloves. (Coach Travis Green after the game, on whether the fight was for Ferland or the team: “You’d have to ask him if he was doing it for himself or the team. It was probably a little bit of both. It’s not surprising at all.”)
1:08 a.m. ET: Wild 3, Canucks 0. The Vancouver young’uns have some learning to do.
Kevin Fiala’s goal off the faceoff in the first period is all the Wild need to beat the Canucks.
1:48 a.m. ET: So after two days and 10 games, what did I learn about the NHL season restart and how it’s being presented?
1. I like a good power play as much as the next hockey nerd, but maybe not this many of them. Especially in what’s ostensibly the playoffs, where penalty calls are notoriously hard to come by.
2. Made-for-TV NHL is the most successful empty-building sport I’ve watched in the past few months. It looks like playoff hockey. There are times it sounds like playoff hockey. But what I liked the most was when the NHL acknowledged how weird this all is — like putting up those fan videos on the screens and the “zero attendance” joke. Lean into it. We’re all in on the joke.
3. Finally, in all these hours of televised games played inside two hub cities because of a pandemic, it was startling to hear so little about … the pandemic. There were some shoutouts to frontline workers. Some details on “bubble life.” People in face masks popping into camera shots. But there wasn’t much discussion of testing and the risks of trying to pull this off. There wasn’t much discussion of sanitation or hygiene or any changes to the players’ routines. Obviously, we wanted sports to come back as that distraction or escape from what’s literally plagued the U.S. since March. But the lack of references to why sports went away was glaring. Whether that was jarring or refreshing is in the eye of the viewer.