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From the Fortress to the Garden, NHL starting to welcome back fans

Liam McHugh, Keith Jones and Mike Babcock break down the new NHL Power Rankings, featuring a red-hot Vegas team that could be looking to make a splash around the trade deadline.

After a year that felt more like a millennium, several NHL teams are saying goodbye to empty arenas as they prepare to open their doors back up to fans.

The return brings about feelings of nostalgia. Players will once again get to feed off the energy of a crowd, heed reminders to “shoot the puck” and see their names on the back of jerseys that fill the stands.

“At this time, we have to respect the protocols, we have to respect the safety of the fans and players and everyone working at these facilities is the most important thing,” Capitals defenseman Zdeno Chara said. “Yeah, it would be great to have fans at the arenas and cheering us on and experience these energy swings during games.”

Here’s where each NHL team currently stands when it comes to welcoming back their respective fan bases.

East Division

Buffalo Sabres: New York state allowed the reopening of large stadiums and arenas on Feb. 23 with protocols. Buffalo will open Keybank Center to fans for select home games starting on March 20.

Boston Bruins: Beantown will see a limited amount of fans return to TD Garden when the Bruins are able to play again. Their originally scheduled game on March 23 against the Islanders, which was to be the first a 12% capacity, has been postponed.

New York Islanders: The Isles welcomed back 1,000 Northwell Health frontline workers on March 11 and officially brought season ticket holders back to Nassau Coliseum on March 18.

New York Rangers: The Blueshirts were the first N.Y. team to host a crowd this season. On Feb. 26, Madison Square Garden saw about 2,000 fans return for the first time since the season came to a pause in March 2020.

New Jersey Devils: N.J. governor Phil Murray gave the go-ahead for venues with a seating capacity of 5,000 or more to operate at 10% capacity in March. The Devils brought back fans with strict protocols in place, and within 48 hours of tickets, they sold out their first eight home games at Prudential Center. New Jersey hosted an audience for the first time in nearly a year on March 2 in a 2-1 loss to the Isles.

[MORE: Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Pittsburgh Penguins: PPG Paints Arena opened its doors to fans to kick off the month of March, with the team requiring all spectators to wear masks at all times unless eating or drinking. However, Pittsburgh faces controversy after the team admitted to photoshopping masks onto fans in a social media photo to hide COVID-19 violations. Seventeen people were also ejected for not wearing masks inside.

Philadelphia Flyers: Gritty’s followers now have a place at Wells Fargo Center, as the venue started hosting fans on March 7 at 15% capacity (about 3,100 people) with COVID-19 protocols in place.

Washington Capitals: Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the group that owns the Caps, submitted a request to the city of D.C. to safely allow fans back into Capital One Arena, per the Washington Post’s Samantha Pell. There’s no return date set in stone, but the team is a step closer.

West Division

Arizona Coyotes: The Yotes were the first NHL team to welcome back fans for a home game in 2021. Local authorities allowed Arizona to open Gila River Arena to 3,450 fans (about 25% capacity) for the team’s season opener in the desert on Jan. 14.

Vegas Golden Knights: As part of Nevada’s 75-day reopening plan, the Vegas Golden Knights are welcoming faithful back to The Fortress and operating at 15% capacity (around 2,600 people). The Knights’ first home game with fans was on March 1, marking the first time in 363 days that T-Mobile Arena hosted fans. Vegas treated them to a show, rewarding their patience with a 5-4 overtime victory over the Minnesota Wild.

Minnesota Wild: Right now, only players’ families and select staff are allowed to attend games. However, the team announced that in early March, Minnesota will allow 40 “true fans” to sit in the Bud Light Top Shelf Lounge on the club level. Where it stands, only 250 people are currently allowed in the arena.

Colorado Avalanche: Ball Arena has received approval from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment to begin hosting 4,050 fans (22% capacity) beginning April 2.

St. Louis Blues: Starting on Feb. 2, the team announced that Enterprise Center will open its doors to a limited amount of fans, along with frontline workers, families and friends of players, staff, employees and essential personnel. In total, St. Louis has increased attendance to 1,400.

Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks: There’s no update yet on whether or not California’s teams will get to fill their stands anytime soon.

Central Division

Carolina Hurricanes: Fans can now take warning with the team indoors. PNC Arena is operating at 15% capacity and opened back up on March 4 for Carolina’s game vs. Detroit.

Chicago Blackhawks: Chicago hasn’t made any decisions surrounding United Center at this time. However, per the Parkins and Spiegel Show, it was reported that the Hawks and Chicago Bulls could welcome fans back at 10-15% capacity in April, pending approval from the city.

[NHL Power Rankings: Hurricanes, Isles climb with winning streaks]

Columbus Blue Jackets: Fire the cannon: fans are back at Nationwide Arena. Columbus first announced its plan to operate at 10% capacity on Feb. 11 after receiving approval from the State of Ohio. On March 2, a year and a day since the team last hosted spectators– 18,378 to be exact – the Jackets welcomed back 1,953 spectators.

Dallas Stars: A COVID-19 outbreak for the team at the start of the 2020-21 campaign hasn’t impacted their plan to welcome back Stars faithful. American Airlines Center currently allows 4,200 fans and has taken several steps to stop the spread of COVID-19, including selling tickets as part of socially-distanced pod seating groups.

Detroit Red Wings: Hockeytown’s residents are coming back slowly and surely. The home opener saw 250 fans allowed in the arena (mainly team personnel family and friends) before that number was expanded to 500 on Jan. 30. Michigan’s eased restrictions allowed Little Caesar’s to open doors to an additional 250 people in March.

Florida Panthers: Sunrise decided that the team would host fans at 25% capacity before the puck even dropped on the 2020-21 campaign. Nearly 5,000 people can fill the stands at BB&T Center, which has several safety measures in place and “became the first NHL hockey arena to achieve the International WELL Building Institute’s (IWBI) WELL Health-Safety Rating.” It’s a good thing for the Cats, who are off to one of their best starts in years.

Nashville Predators: The Metro Public Health Department gave the Preds the green light for 15% capacity at the start of the year, but Nashville elected to wait. Then, on Jan. 26, Smashville welcomed back fans with open arms and put on quite the show, snapping a three-game skid with a 3-2 overtime victory over Chicago.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The defending Stanley Cup champions brought back a crowd on March 13 after Vinik Sports Group, the Bolts’ parent company, announced it will allow up to 3,800 spectators into Amalie Arena. Tampa made it a night to remember, as the Bolts finally raised their 2020 Stanley Cup Championship banner to the rafters, sharing that moment with their fans.

North Division

It appears the nation of Canada is playing things safe, with no spectators allowed for any Canadian teams so far. It may be for the best, with the Canucks currently in the throes of a major COVID-19 outbreak following relatively little to no interference from the pandemic to start the season for the North.