Back in February, when fans gathered to watch hockey
Back in February, when fans gathered to watch hockey Credit: Kelyn Soong

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For hockey fans hungry for the thrill of competition again, the past week has offered some hope.

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan met with reporters via Zoom on Friday to discuss the NHL’s plan to resume play and proceed with the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs after the season was suspended on March 12th due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This year’s playoffs will feature 24 teams and employ a four-team round robin among the top four seeds based on points percentage in each conference (the Capitals are third in the Eastern Conference) as well as a play-in round for the lower-seeded teams. Teams will be permitted to resume organized training camp activities sometime in July as part of Phase 2, while the actual games themselves will occur as part of Phase 3 sometime after that, likely in late August. The playoffs will take place in two yet-to-be-determined hub cities.

On the call, MacLellan said that the Capitals are actively working with government officials, the NHL, and team trainers and doctors to ensure the safety of players and staff and comply with all national, state, and local regulations governing testing, travel, and mandatory quarantining. But he acknowledged that the unknown nature of the virus presents difficulties for the team, especially in a sport like hockey with a culture of players keeping their injuries concealed.

“[Coronavirus] presents a challenge because it’s more hidden. We don’t have a good comfort level about how it’s passed; we just don’t know enough about it.” MacLellan said, adding that he and Capitals staff are instructing coaches and trainers to be especially understanding with players who may not feel comfortable returning to training camp right away. “Players are uncertain how they can protect themselves, how they can protect their families … We have to treat each player and their belief system individually.”

The Capitals will have several options when it comes to selecting their roster for the playoff push. The American Hockey League officially cancelled the remainder of its season on May 11th, following the lead of the Canadian Hockey League, which threw in the towel on March 23rd. As a result, nearly any prospect in the Capitals organization is eligible to be one of the 28 skaters and unlimited goalies that NHL clubs are permitted to carry into these 2020 playoffs.

For the Capitals, that means fans may get to see 2019 first-round draft pick and high-flying top prospect Connor McMichael in a winged red sweater sooner rather than later. MacLellan confirmed that the Capitals are actively in talks with McMichael and the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights to potentially have the CHL All-Star make his NHL debut with Washington this postseason.

“It would be a great learning experience for Connor, a big leap for his development to be in that environment,” MacLellan said. “Off-ice workouts, nutrition, that kind of stuff. To see our guys doing it professionally on a daily basis and in a competitive environment would be invaluable.”

News that McMichael, who scored 102 points in just 52 games for the Knights this season, may soon hit the ice for Washington has led to plenty of excitement for the Washington fanbase.

Even with the shortened season, MacLellan doesn’t want to hear suggestions that whichever team wins the Stanley Cup this year will somehow have their championship tainted or deserving of an asterisk.

“It is going to be different, it is going to be unique. But 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, he said. And whoever wins it, it’s going to be just as satisfying as before.”

But the general manager did acknowledge one fundamental truth with a wry smile: that with an unprecedented situation, and a different tournament format, these Stanley Cup playoffs could be unpredictable fun.

“There’s a chance for a little randomness to creep in,” he said. “The championship is up for grabs. It could be wildly entertaining.”