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Biggest Caps stories of 2020: COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the NHL season

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On March 12, every arena in the NHL fell silent. The Capitals were scheduled to host the Detroit Red Wings that day. Instead, the morning skate was canceled, followed soon after by the announcement that the NHL season had been paused.

The news was both stunning and not a surprise. The NBA paused its season on March 11 after Rudy Gobert became the first player to test positive for the coronavirus. The NHL, which shares many of the same arenas and locker rooms, followed the next day.

"It's amazing how your life just comes to a halt and all the things you do day to day doesn't matter anymore," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said in March, "And all of a sudden there's a big picture, there's a reality going on and all the little things you're concerned about on a daily basis don't really matter much."

For hockey players and fans, there are times when it can feel like hockey is the most important thing in our lives. The coronavirus was a good reminder that there are many things much more important than the game of hockey.

"The most important thing is take care of yourself, take care of your family, friends," Alex Ovechkin said in March. "Help each other just to be safe because right now is hard time."

The coronavirus hit close to home for head coach Todd Reirden whose son, Travis, has common variable immunodeficiency.

"When first news came out of who was going to be most affected by this, obviously it was the elderly and people with compromised immune system and immediately Travis, who's now 17, goes to the top of that list," Reirden said.

 

He continued, "We've really had to be careful about what we're bringing into the house and not leaving and making sure that if we do go out and do something, that we basically leave all of our clothes at the door and make sure that they get washed and wash our hands."

At the time, no one knew just how long the season would be paused. The Capitals had played in 69 games to that point. The initial hope was that the teams would be able to finish out the regular season. Surely the pause would not push the season back long enough to consider other options. Yet, as the pandemic continued to drag on and the season remained paused, it soon became clear that gathering all 31 teams back just to finish a handful of regular season games before the playoffs made little sense and the work of setting up a postseason in order to ensure the Stanley Cup would be awarded in 2020 began in earnest.

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But this postseason was not going to look like any other we have ever seen. Playing in home arenas was not an option. Teams would have to gather in "bubbles" in Canada and adhere to strict safety protocols in order to play.

Finally in August, four months after the season was initially paused, the 2020 postseason began. The postseason had been extended to include 24 teams. Games were played in Edmonton and Toronto in front of empty arenas. Crowd noise was pumped into the broadcast to make the game sound more normal to fans watching from home and seats were covered with NHL banners.

"It's going to be hard because there's not going to be fans, but you're going to spend almost two months together without family or maybe less, I don't know how it's going to work," Ovechkin said at the start of training camp. "But for us, it's most important thing, we're going to play hockey, we're going to practice, do everything together. It's going to be fun."

Washington, which had been skidding into the pause, still managed to earn a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference. They faced a round-robin to start against the other three top-four teams and earned the No. 3 seed after going 1-1-1. That earned them a matchup against Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders in the first round, a matchup that saw the Caps eliminated in just five games.

Despite all the logistics involved in running the postseason, despite all the issues and the questions of how it would all work, the NHL somehow managed to pull it off. The entire postseason was run without a single player testing positive for COVID-19 and the Stanley Cup was ultimately awarded to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the end of September, about a week before the regular season would be starting in a normal year.

 

COVID-19 is the story that dominated the world in 2020. The Caps and the NHL ultimately could not avoid its effects. In March, we thought that pause would last only a few weeks. Now as we look back at the year, the new NHL season has yet to begin with the pandemic still raging throughout North America. It was a season unlike any other we have even seen and, hopefully, no one will have to go through another one like it.

More Capitals biggest storylines of 2020:

Capitals blown apart by Barry Trotz, Islanders

Nicklas Backstrom re-signs to be a Capital for life

Braden Holtby plays his last season with the Capitals Alex Ovechkin makes history with 700th goal