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Fans return for Game 6 between Canadiens and Maple Leafs

Nick Suzuki ends it in overtime and Joel Armia adds two goals in Game 5, forcing a Game 6 for the Canadiens vs. the Maple Leafs in the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

MONTREAL — While fans are returning in droves to sporting events in the United States, athletes in Canada are just starting to take their first steps toward competing in front of small crowds because of COVID-19 restrictions.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Canadiens in Game 6 of their opening-round series in Montreal on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. EDT, NBCSN), some 2,500 fans will be allowed to attend after Quebec loosened its rules.

It will mark the first crowd at an NHL game in Canada since March 2020, a welcome change if a far cry from the scenes in the U.S., where more than 14,000 have attended playoff games in the NHL and fans are also growing in NBA arenas for its postseason. Some 135,000 are expected to be on hand for the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, which would be the biggest sports crowd in the world since the pandemic began.

Winnipeg defenseman Dylan DeMelo got a rare treat driving to a warm up earlier this week: He heard cars honking near the arena before the Jets swept the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

DeMelo said playing in empty arenas was hard during the regular season, and it’s tougher in the playoffs. Something is missing.

“I think it’s hard to see watching the other teams play, especially in the U.S. where they’ve basically got full barns or at least a lot of fans,” he said. “Those games are a lot more fun to watch than games without any fans in the building.”

Fans seem to motivate the players, and the more fans the more motivation.

Pittsburgh defenseman Mike Matheson said it felt like the building was going crazy after a first-round playoff game against the New York Islanders, who won the series 4-2.

“Any time you look up and those towels spinning with that many people in the building, especially with everything going on in the world and the fact that we haven’t been able to have everybody in the building this season, to see that gives you chills and really puts a spark in our team,” he said.

It was a much different scene for the first two playoff games in Winnipeg, with white towels covering all the empty seats to replicate the traditional playoff whiteout.

Having fans back for big games has had its drawbacks. In recent NBA playoff games, a fan threw popcorn at Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook and was banned. At Madison Square Garden in New York, some of the 15,000 fans at a Knicks game used expletives in chants directed at Atlanta guard Trae Young.

Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli said the chance to play in front of fans in a potential elimination game will motivate the team, which lost three straight before forcing Game 6.

“We’ve definitely missed it this year the entire season,” he said. “To get the opportunity to play in front of even the small amount that’s going to be allowed is huge and will be a lot of fun.”

Winnipeg heads into the second round without much of hope of playing in front of a crowd in hard-hit Manitoba. For now, the team will settle for the noisy support fans have provided from afar.

After the Jets beat the Oilers 4-3 in triple overtime, horns rang out on the city’s streets, with many people cheering and hoisting brooms from their cars to celebrate the sweep. The revelry might have been disruptive for some, since it came around 3 a.m., said Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey.

“But that makes it pretty special, driving home after the game and seeing some of the streets lined up with cars,” he said. “People waiting to waiting to wave at us and celebrate in the best way you can at this point in time was pretty cool.”