Drop the puck for summer hockey: NHL playoffs get under way

The Rangers’ Ryan Strome, right, fights with the Hurricanes’ Justin Williams during the first period of their game Saturday in Toronto. Frank Gunn/The Associated Press, Canadian Press

TORONTO — The puck dropped, Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin scored 61 seconds in and teammate Justin Williams fought New York’s Ryan Strome a couple of minutes later.

Hockey is back after a hiatus of more than four months.

The NHL playoffs got underway Saturday afternoon with Game 1 of the best-of-5 qualifying round between the Hurricanes and Rangers. The Hurricanes got their traditional home-game introduction a thousand miles from Raleigh, North Carolina, with no fans in the stands to appreciate it.

The dynamics are far different than usual: It’s the middle of summer, all games are being played in empty arenas in Toronto or Edmonton, Alberta. But players and coaches expect the chase for the Stanley Cup to bring the same competition level.

Slavin’s goal was the NHL’s first in the month of August. Then, Williams and Strome dropped the gloves less than three minutes in. Watching the first few minutes from Edmonton, Vancouver Canucks players could tell this was playoff hockey.

“Not necessarily laughing but just (noticing) how intense it was right away,” forward Tyler Toffoli said.

The same intensity could be on display in the other games on opening day when the Edmonton Oilers face the Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers face the New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens face the Pittsburgh Penguins and Winnipeg Jets face the Calgary Flames.

At Scotiabank Arena, the first dozen or so rows are covered in grey and white tarp, with the NHL shield on four of them and Toronto in all capital letters on another four.

Above them are electronic banners with NHL logos on them and a TV viewing platform at center ice, all of them limited to the benches side of the ice. These electronic banners will feature team logos, as well as videos of each team’s fans chanting.

In each of the end zones are NHL Eastern Conference banners book-ending a banner that reads “Stanley Cup Qualifiers 2020.”

The remainder of the arena is as is, with the 19 Maple Leafs player banners, from Frank Mahovlich in the east end to Doug Gilmour in the west, and Turk Broda smack dab in the middle.

Behind them are the Raptors banners, including the 2019 NBA championship, and beyond the row of Maple Leafs Stanley Cup banners.

On the top banner of the video scoreboard at center, are the words: “#WeSkateForBLACKLIVES.”

The rink boards feature the familiar series of ads. And the NHL’s newest corporate partners, Roman and Little Caesars are among those who have their logos painted on the ice in the corners.

The temperature in the arena is cold, with it being advisable to wear a jacket, while the temperature outside is expected to rise to 79. Lightning Coach Jon Cooper noticed that during his team’s exhibition game earlier in the week.

“It was extremely cold in the arena, which is by a big part because there are no fans,” Cooper said. “When the puck went (out of) play, we all yelled heads and nobody was in the stands.”

Outside the arena, the streets are generally bare of people, with Maple Leaf Square fenced off and with security personnel at each entrance.

Inside, there were reminders of the pandemic: the ice crew wearing masks, disinfection of benches at intermission and the din of piped-in crowd noise filling the air.

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