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NHL’s COVID-19 complications could weigh heavy on playoff picture

Liam McHugh, Anson Carter and Patrick Sharp discuss the latest NHL power rankings, where Mathieu Joseph and Tampa sit at No. 1 while Carolina looks to remain hot and keep rising after adding Cedric Paquette.

The NHL season appears to be back in full swing, but not without interference from COVID-19.

The pandemic has taken its toll on the regular season as several teams, from the Devils to the Sabres, have experienced postponements, absences down the lineup or an entire shutdown.

“We have to do more,” Capitals forward Lars Eller told reporters in regards to preventing the continued spread of COVID-19. “I think we have to do more, whether it is testing or putting in measures that protect us without it disturbing our preparation and the game being played. So I think we have to do a little bit more and hopefully the decision-makers together can figure out what those measures are that we have to take.”

Although some of the worst outbreaks have been in New Jersey, where 19 players were on the NHL COVID-19 list at one key point in 2021, and Buffalo, where Ralph Krueger was among those out while suffering symptoms, the virus has taken its toll across the league — especially when it comes to the standings.

To accommodate for the shortened 56-game season, teams are only playing within their divisions, which underwent realignment heading into the 2020-21 campaign. Here’s how they stack up:

East: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals

Central: Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning

West: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights

North: Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets

Taking a look at the standings, there have been some surprises, including the Panthers and Blackhawks stealing the show in the Central. However, teams like the Stars, who saw the start of their season postponed amid positive tests and then a couple of other key matchups moved in the case of extreme weather, have not played as many games and are currently out of contention.

[2020-21 NHL on NBC TV SCHEDULE]

If the season were to end today, here’s how the standings would look:

East: 1. Bruins 2. Islanders 3. Flyers 4. Capitals | 5. Penguins 6. Devils 7. Rangers 8. Sabres

Central: 1. Panthers 2. Blackhawks 3. Lightning 4. Hurricanes | 5. Blue Jackets 6. Stars 7. Predators 8. Red Wings

West: 1. Golden Knights 2. Blues 3. Avalanche 4. Coyotes | 5. Ducks 6. Kings 7. Sharks 8. Wild

North: 1. Maple Leafs 2. Canadiens 3. Oilers 4. Jets | 5. Flames 6. Canucks 7. Senators

(Note: top four teams in each division qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs)

However, one can argue that these standings are skewed; the Devils have played the least amount of games (10 GP), followed by the Sabres (12 GP), who have also been set back by COVID-19. Beyond the East, the Stars (12 GP) and Wild (12 GP) have faced the same implication.

Still, by looking at points percentage, the playoff picture shifts. For instance, New Jersey, led by sophomore Jack Hughes, has had a strong start to the year with a winning percentage of .600. By looking at points percentage, more of an emphasis is placed on team performance, and in turn, New Jersey, Dallas and Minnesota move up the ladder.

East: 1. Bruins 2. Flyers 3. Islanders 4. Capitals | 5. Devils 6. Penguins 7. Sabres 8. Rangers

Central: 1. Panthers 2. Lightning 3. Hurricanes 4. Blackhawks | 5. Stars 6. Blue Jackets 7. Predators 8. Red Wings

West: 1. Golden Knights 2. Avalanche 3. Blues 4. Coyotes | 5. Wild 6. Ducks 7. Kings 8. Sharks

North: 1. Maple Leafs 2. Canadiens 3. Jets 4. Oilers | 5. Flames 6. Canucks 7. Senators

(Note: top four teams in each division qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs)

Another implication of the virus, of course, includes players placed on the NHL COVID-19 list. This can be for one reason or another, from potential exposure to testing positive, but those names become unavailable to the team, which can leave a team shorthanded as the postseason race heats up.

Washington, though it came out mostly unscathed, faced an increasingly tough situation earlier in the year, where captain Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Samsonov, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov were all placed on the list after socializing in a hotel room without masks and, in turn, missed four-plus games. Tampa also faced a similar scenario when the Bolts were without the services of captain Steven Stamkos, who was placed on protocol following a false positive. This alone could also create a stir as teams could have to be without key pieces down the stretch.

Originally, the regular season was scheduled to end on May 8 with the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs set to open on May 11. But with 29 schedule changes on Feb. 16 — and more to be announced — the season finale is now set for May 10, with Tampa facing Dallas and New Jersey closing things out against Philadelphia.

In the meantime, the league continues to combat the virus and made modifications to NHL COVID-19 protocol, including changes to rapid testing, different seating arrangements in the locker room and removing glass behind the bench.

Though COVID-19 still leaves a sting of uncertainty, the schedule offers more flexibility and levels the playing field with all teams set to play all 56 games this season. The only question is if things will change dramatically, or if there will continue to be more surprises down the road.