- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2020

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association finalized their plans for the upcoming season Sunday, with a 56-game regular season beginning Jan. 13 and concluding May 8. Both sides had reportedly agreed to the season outline on Friday, but the approval of the league’s Board of Governors confirmed those plans.

The playoffs will feature the usual 16 teams in a best-of-seven, four-round format that wraps up in mid-July, putting the NHL on the path toward the 2021-22 season returning to a normal timeline, with the regular season beginning in October.

Training camps will open Jan. 3 for teams that featured in the league’s Return-to-Play playoff bubble this summer; the seven teams that didn’t play in the bubbles can open as early as Dec. 31. There will be no preseason games ahead of the 56-game slate.

“The National Hockey League looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season, especially since the Return to Play in 2019-20 was so successful in crowning a Stanley Cup champion,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a release. “While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play. And, as was the case last spring and summer, I thank the NHLPA, particularly Executive Director Don Fehr, for working cooperatively with us to get our League back on the ice.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues its surge, the NHL has realigned teams and divisions for one year, attempting to minimize travel for teams as much as possible. Teams will play only opponents in the same division as itself. The East, West and Central divisions will play each opponent eight times, while the North will play nine or 10 times each.

The league is still waiting on an agreement with health officials for where the seven Canadian teams will play. The plan is to have games held in home arenas rather than a bubble, although the NHL will allow “one or more” neutral site venues for each division if it becomes necessary. The NHL said it doesn’t expect fans to be able to attend games to start to the season.

“The Players are pleased to have finalized agreements for the upcoming season, which will be unique but also very exciting for the fans and Players alike,” Don Fehr, NHLPA Executive Director, said in a release. “During these troubled times, we hope that NHL games will provide fans with some much-needed entertainment as the players return to the ice.”

The Washington Capitals will play in the East division, facing the following squads: the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Each other division attempts to be geographically based, too. The North comprises the league’s seven Canadian franchises; the West spans from California to Minnesota; and the Central includes teams all the way from Florida to Illinois.

The top four teams from each division will qualify for the playoffs, and the first two rounds will be more intradivisional games. After that, the final four teams will be seeded by their regular season points total for the semifinals onward.

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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