Caps fans celebrating the teams 2018 Stanley Cup titles 2018 Stanley Cup title
Caps fans celebrating the teams 2018 Stanley Cup titles 2018 Stanley Cup title Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Professional sports leagues across the country and the world are attempting to resume play. Some are creating COVID-19 “bubbles” in specific cities to protect teams and staff. Others appear to be sort of winging it, struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus within their own leagues.

Many hockey fans in D.C. have been counting down the days to the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, but for others, this week’s NHL restart has been a total surprise. Hockey is back, and this guide is for those fans who still have a few more questions than answers as the Capitals begin their postseason.

Wait, I saw the Capitals lost last night. Is the NHL officially back?

Yes. These games count, and meaningful hockey is back! The 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs are officially underway, and the Washington Capitals are right in the thick of it after dropping their first game to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 3-2, in a shootout on Monday night. The format is a little wonky this year, so just remember this:

There are 12 teams from each conference this year instead of eight. Right now, the Caps are playing in the “round robin” stage as one of the top four Eastern Conference teams. They’ll play the Lightning, Bruins, and Flyers once each to determine seeding. Meanwhile, the bottom eight teams in the conference are currently playing in best-of-five elimination series to determine who advances as their opponents for the next round.

But here’s what matters to Caps fans: The more wins the team racks up in the round robin, the easier (theoretically) its next opponent will be.

And as for that giant, silver, 35-pound trophy they’re all fighting for? The Stanley Cup will be awarded no later than Oct. 4, right around the time the NHL season traditionally begins.

But isn’t the COVID-19 pandemic still happening? Are they using a “bubble” like the NBA?

Yes, the COVID-19 crisis is still very much happening. So it’s not just goalies who should be wearing a mask.

In fact, the NHL has not just one bubble but two. All Western and Eastern Conference teams, players, staff, and playoff games themselves will be held in Edmonton and Toronto, respectively. Unlike Major League Baseball, which has not instituted a bubble system and which just this past Saturday saw 20 percent of its games cancelled due to multiple coronavirus outbreaks, NHL personnel are sequestered within controlled, fenced compounds and are subjected to multiple COVID-19 tests per day.

And how is it going so far? On Monday, the NHL announced that of the 7,013 coronavirus tests administered the week prior, not a single test came back positive. That gives hope to sports-starved fans hoping to see at least one shiny trophy awarded among the Big Four leagues this year.

OK, I’ll get my Caps jersey out of the closet. What players and storylines will be most entertaining?

Well, what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream? Do you like the classics? Because it doesn’t get much sweeter than watching 34-year-old Alexander Ovechkin, already an undisputed all-time great, chase a second Stanley Cup and the immortality it brings while trying to blast a one-timer past Father Time. At the other end of the ice, Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Braden Holtby will try to lead Washington to one last mountaintop as he plays what are likely his final games in a Capitals sweater.

But if you like to try new things, this Capitals lineup has plenty of additional flavors to choose from. Rookie franchise-goalie-in-waiting Ilya Samsonov is not with the team due to injury, so long-time AHL backup Vitek Vanecek will get the chance to experience a whole new set of NHL firsts behind Holtby. On offense, fans will hope veteran Russian überforward Ilya Kovalchuk (acquired from Montreal at the trade deadline) can deliver a bit of the same playoff magic that countryman Sergei Fedorov did for Washington back in 2009.

On the blueline, alternate captain John Carlson is a first-time Norris Trophy finalist as the NHL’s best defenseman. He’ll look to bounce back from a lower-body injury suffered in an exhibition game against Carolina earlier this week and finish his award season with a strong run at the (penalty) box office. And on the other side of the defense, feisty trade deadline acquisition Brenden Dillon will do his best to secure his spot in Washington and convince the Capitals’ front office to re-sign him after his contract expires this postseason. Recently, Dillon and the Monumental Sports and Entertainment Foundation donated 10,000 protective masks to several D.C. area nonprofits.

Got it. But, with all that’s going on, will this Stanley Cup “count” the same? Will the champion need an asterisk?

Let me hand the mic over to Capitals GM Brian MacLellan, who told reporters in May:

“I think the satisfaction of winning a championship, playing with your teammates, getting through the hurdles of the playoffs, that’s all going to be satisfying. And whoever wins it, it’s going to be just as satisfying as before.”

Those are diplomatic words from a diplomatic man. Let me put it differently: You better freaking believe this Stanley Cup “counts.” From the unprecedented randomness of the new playoff format and its re-seedings, to the psychological pressures of life in the bubble and weeks spent apart from home and family, to the utter lack of any semblance of a home-ice advantage at these neutral sites, the playoffs present challenges no other champion has ever had to overcome before.

Again, in MacLellan’s own words: “There’s a chance for a little randomness to creep in. The championship is up for grabs. It could be wildly entertaining.”

Could be? You better count on it.