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A Canadian team in the Stanley Cup Final? Well…

The long awaited — though necessarily delayed — NHL season finally begins tomorrow night.

The condensed 56-game regular season includes a one-year realignment of divisions — bolstered by corporate names — in order to cut down on travel and to adhere to the restrictions established by the Canadian government.

So, how might the season play out?

Here’s one guess:

Scotia NHL North: Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, Winnipeg, Ottawa. Toronto and Ottawa seem certain to finish where they are predicted. The other five teams will be closely bunched, and only three can make the post-season. Chances are one of them will become the clear second best team by season’s end. Or maybe not.

MassMutual NHL East: Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Buffalo, New Jersey. The top three could end up in any order, while the next two will contend for the division’s last playoff spot. After that? Not much. Is any flight to any game involving these eight teams longer than 75 minutes?

Discover NHL Central: Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina, Columbus, Nashville, Florida, Chicago, Detroit. The Stanley Cup finalists from one season ago sit atop this division, with the always pesky Hurricanes right behind them. Finishing first should mean a much easier opening round playoff opponent. Average to awful describes the other five teams.

Honda NHL West: Colorado, Vegas, St. Louis, Minnesota, Arizona, Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim. The only division where the top four and the bottom four seem clear. And there appears to be a clear gap between the top two and the next two. Professional hockey in California this season will be, well, not good.

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Intra-division games highlight the first two rounds of the playoffs, meaning one team from each division is guaranteed to make the semifinals. At that point, the four teams will be seeded based on total points from the regular season.

My guess is the semifinals will be:

(1) Colorado vs (4) Toronto

(2) Tampa Bay vs (3) Philadelphia

If this is correct, then I believe the Stanley Cup Final matches

Colorado and Tampa Bay, with the Avalanche winning the Stanley Cup.

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If I were ranking the top 10 teams right now, they’d be:

Colorado

Tampa Bay

Vegas

St. Louis

Washington

Philadelphia

Boston

Dallas

Pittsburgh

Carolina

BREAKING: Heart condition forces NHL great Lundqvist away from game

The Washington Capitals’ website has details of a stunning announcement from NHL great Henrik Lundqvist.

The news comes 10 weeks after Lundqvist signed a one-year contract with the Capitals for the 2020-21 season, putting the Caps in the market once again for a second goaltender to work alongside sophomore Ilya Samsonov. On Thursday, Lundqvist announced his intention to pause his hockey career in the wake of the daunting medical news.

If the 2021 NHL season comes to pass…

Let’s begin with the obvious: The National Hockey League’s owners and players appear eager to play a 2021 season. The outline of such a season appears to be locked in: a roughly 56-game regular season will begin around Jan. 15, and the Stanley Cup winner will be crowned in late July.

The abbreviated season also would include a one-time realignment of teams, primarily to cut down on extended (and expensive) travel but also to reduce potential exposure to coronavirus. The realignment would be for 2021 only.

The economic details could doom the plan; but if the season happens, here’s a possible breakdown of divisions (listed in order of how I believe the teams would finish):

CANADA: Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa: With the U.S. and Canadian border still closed (can you blame Canada, by the way?), a roughly 2,800 mile/4,500 kilometer division includes only the seven Canadian-based teams. As they stand, five teams weave in and out of being good enough to get within sniffing distance of the Stanley Cup before heading to the golf course. Montreal seems determined to frustrate its fan base, and then there’s Ottawa.

EAST: Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Buffalo, New Jersey: I’m only half joking when I suggest these 8 teams could play the entire regular season without ever stepping on an airplane. For now, Philadelphia and Boston appear to teams of today, but Washington and Pittsburgh might be past their time. The Islanders could inch up. Buffalo and New Jersey aren’t ready to make a dent among this group.

CENTRAL: Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Carolina, Columbus, Florida, Nashville, Chicago, Detroit: Another less than perfect combination of teams that requires merging current Eastern and Western conference squads. On the ice, there are two potential Stanley Cup champions at the top, with Carolina lurking. Columbus and Florida often underperform. The back of the division doesn’t appear all that ominous, which might allow Tampa Bay to earn the most points in the regular season.

WEST: Colorado, Vegas, Dallas, Arizona, Minnesota, San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles: With the exception of Dallas and Minnesota, the combination of teams is compact, and there’s intriguing potential for multiple outdoor games. The top three teams could be really good, especially if Colorado takes the presumed next step to greatness. The remaining five teams range from good enough to pull off one playoff upset to bad.

Let’s presume the league’s 31 teams are grouped as suggested above. (Carolina and Pittsburgh could flip divisions, but it makes more sense to place them where they are.) What would happen once the regular season ends?

Let’s take our tale a step further and scope out how the playoffs might look.

The most practical option is for the divisional alignments to continue in the first two rounds. For sake of argument, let’s say that happens and that my projected division winners advance.

That would mean the final four teams are Toronto, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Colorado.

At this point, I’d base the semifinals on team points. If that’s the case, then let’s imagine top-seeded Tampa Bay playing fourth-seeded Toronto and second-seeded Colorado playing third-seeded Philadelphia.

The plan outlined above is speculative, and it might not be the arrangement agreed to by the league’s management and players. But it does offer a reasonable blueprint to get a shortened 2021 season from start to finish.

What are your thoughts? Look for the reply box below!

Predicting the NHL Round of 16 playoff series

My 21-year-old son growled as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Game 4 of the Montreal-Pittsburgh NHL qualifying-round series.

“I waited for four months, and the Penguins are gone in four games,” he said (sort of said?).

I reminded him that I thought the best-of-5 qualifying round was a bit of a crapshoot because the teams were about as even as they could possibly be after four months of inactivity. All 24 teams were basically at full health. No team had any real momentum. Any team could quickly be tossed aside by simple rust.

That same 21-year-old replied, “They lost to the (ahem) Canadiens, who absolutely sucked during the regular season.”

Ah, fandom. And youth.

With that, my picks for the NHL Round of 16 playoffs:

WESTERN CONFERENCE:

Vegas vs Chicago: Remember when the Golden Knights were struggling, sitting in a precarious 7th place in the Western Conference? A coaching change has revitalized this team, which should handle Chicago with relative ease, but with no Las Vegas flare, unfortunately. Vegas in 6.

Colorado vs Arizona: Colorado lived up to the hype during the regular season and kept the motor running in the qualifying round. Arizona has the grit to make this the most interesting series in the west, but not enough talent to win it. Colorado in 7.

Dallas vs Calgary: The first team to 2 in each game wins? Goals should be at a premium, with Dallas’ anemic offense and stingy defense on display. Calgary took advantage of key Winnipeg injuries to win in the qualifying round. The Flames face tougher odds, but win. Calgary in 7.

St. Louis vs Vancouver: The Blues lost all three round-robin games scoring only 6 goals, and 4 came in one game. It was mere rust, right? St. Louis won’t go from being the west’s best team in the regular season to out this quickly, right? The champs aren’t dead yet. St. Louis in 6.

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

Philadelphia vs Montreal: Imagine your reaction if I’d had told you when the NHL regular season began in October that these two teams would be the 1 vs 8 playoff match up? Well, here we are. Montreal will not beat both Pennsylvania teams this summer. Philadelphia in 5.

Tampa Bay vs Columbus: The Lightning won’t be at full strength at the start of this series. And the longer Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman are watching and not playing, the less likely Tampa Bay holds off Columbus. John Tortorella is ready to pounce. Columbus in 6.

Washington vs New York Islanders: What if New York head coach Barry Trotz pushes all the right buttons against his former team? What if Washington, a team known for “struggling,” shall we say, in the post-season does just that? Nah. Washington in 7.

Boston vs Carolina: The Bruins were the NHL’s best team in the regular season, and they then laid an egg in the round robin, losing all three. Boston had better find its game quickly because Carolina comes into this series looking really good. Carolina in 7.

So, put it all together and, if I’m right, the conference semifinal matchups will be Vegas vs Calgary and Colorado vs St. Louis in the west, and Philadelphia vs Columbus and Washington vs Carolina in the east.

I won’t ask my son for his opinion of these predictions. He’s still, shall we say, a bit upset.

UPDATED: BREAKING: 13 members of MLB and NHL teams contract coronavirus

UPDATE: 3:12 pm. EDT: The Toronto Blue Jays have closed their spring training camp in Dunedin, which is less than three miles from the Phillies’ location in Clearwater, FL.

ORIGINAL POST: The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Phillies — both of which had camps open in Florida — are in shut down mode after a combined 13 members of their organizations came down wit coronavirus.

The Lightning reported five cases, three players and two staff. The Phillies reported eight cases, five players and three staff.

The Lightning’s camp is in Tampa, while the Phillies were at the spring training location in nearby Clearwater.