Evgeni Malkin wore a baseball cap with a picture of a tiger on the front Tuesday, which was fitting. The Pittsburgh Penguins center sounded as if he were about to be released from a cage.
“Miss hockey, like, lot,” he said.
Don’t we all?
The NHL hasn’t played since Sept. 28, when the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars 2-0 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
We should have been looking forward to the 2020-21 season then. Instead, we were finishing the 2019-20 season, which was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus and restarted Aug. 1 with a 24-team tournament in bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.
Now, finally, after 3 1/2 months of waiting through the pandemic — and 10 months for the seven teams that didn’t participate in the 2020 postseason — it’s time to drop the puck again. It’s time to look forward.
And there is so much to look forward to, starting with opening night Wednesday.
The Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers will renew their rivalry at Wells Fargo Center (5:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1), followed by the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena (7 p.m. ET; SN, TVAS).
The Lightning will begin their title defense against the Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN).
Then the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks will play at Rogers Place (10 p.m. ET; SN, SN1, TVAS), and the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues will play at Ball Arena (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, ALT).
“I think guys have done a really good job of just jumping right into a difficult circumstance,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “My sense has been that these guys are completely invested in this experience, and that’s what’s necessary to win in this league.
“And so now the journey begins, and for me, that’s the best part. It’s the most rewarding. This is a tough challenge. We know it. I think we’re prepared for it, and we just have to trust one another and rely on one another and stay in the moment.”
The regular season has been shortened from 82 games to 56. Teams will play only within divisions that have been realigned temporarily because of Canada-United States border restrictions and the need to reduce travel.
In the Scotia North Division, comprised of the seven teams based in Canada, each team will play each opponent nine or 10 times. In the others — the MassMutual East Division, Discover Central Division and Honda West Division — each team will play each opponent eight times.
The top four teams in each division will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In other words, the regular season will be a sprint to the playoffs. Each game will matter more than usual in a league already defined by parity. With teams playing each other so often in direct competition for playoff spots, rivalries will run red hot.
“It’s going to be hard to make the playoffs in the division that we’re in with the quality of the teams,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday. “We understand that we’re going to have to be at our best. But we’re ready for the challenge, we’re looking forward to this opportunity and it starts [now].
“I think all teams and their fans bases are really excited about hockey getting back on the ice, and we’re going to try and do our part as far as playing some good hockey, playing some winning hockey and doing the right things to be winners.”
No one can ease into the season, not even the defending champs.
“With the shortened season, we can’t allow ourselves to sit around here and wait for it to happen 15, 20 games in, and I think our group understands that,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said.
The teams that didn’t participate in the 2020 postseason were permitted to open camp Dec. 31, the rest Jan. 3. There were no preseason games. The best teams could do in a short camp was scrimmage.
“I think everybody’s at a disadvantage in that regard,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “You can only go so hard against your own teammates, and players know each other’s tendencies. It’s just not the same. I think that’ll be the challenge for everybody in the League. The first game against a different opponent counts for two points.”
It will be strange to have little to no fans in the stands too, even for those teams that played without fans in the stands in the 2020 postseason.
But if you missed hockey, don’t miss it.
“Hopes are high,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “Guys have put in a long offseason training to get ready for this. Excitement, jitters, all the stuff that comes with opening night, with the exception of fans cheering us on in our building, I think all those feelings and emotions that players normally go through, they’re still there.”
NHL.com deputy managing editor Adam Kimelman contributed to this report