NHL

Asterisk or not, Flames coach sees tough road ahead in battle for Stanley Cup

Geoff Ward realizes there are hockey fans who staunchly believe in attaching an asterisk to the 2020 Stanley Cup champions. The Calgary Flames interim head coach gets that this playoff tournament — slated to start in the heat of summer with no fans in attendance — is vastly different than in years past.

NHL preserving sanctity of playoffs through the most trying of circumstances

Calgary Flames' interim head coach Geoff Ward, seen above behind the bench in January, says 'I don't see anything that is going to take anything away from being a Stanley Cup champion this year.' (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Geoff Ward realizes there are hockey fans who staunchly believe in attaching an asterisk to the 2020 Stanley Cup champions.

The Calgary Flames interim head coach gets that this Stanley Cup tournament — slated to start in the heat of summer with no fans in attendance — is vastly different than in years past.

But Ward figures the NHL is preserving the sanctity of Lord Stanley's chalice through the most trying of circumstances — a global pandemic.

"Whoever wins, believe me, there is going to be no sort of feeling like, 'Oh, it was a cheap year. It was something different. It wasn't normal,' " Ward told reporters last week via Zoom. "Whoever is crowned the Stanley Cup champion is going to take an awful lot of pride in that.

"I don't see anything that is going to take anything away from being a Stanley Cup champion this year."

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The NHL and NHLPA struck an agreement last week on a return-to-play format that includes 24 teams — as opposed to the traditional 16 — in the post-season.

There is so much still in flux — practice rinks need to open, followed by training camps in July, the selection of two host cities, and so many health and safety issues to iron out — before hockey fans get their fix.

Regardless, the new plan calls for the top-4 clubs in the Eastern and Western Conference to play two abbreviated round-robin tournaments to determine playoff seeding.

The other eight teams in each conference would play a best-of-five 'play-in' series — No. 5 versus No. 12, No. 6 versus No. 11, No. 7 versus No. 10, and No. 8 versus No. 9 — to determine the 16 clubs left standing for the playoffs.

"The reason we decided the format is because it had the most integrity possible for the league and the players," says Vancouver Canucks centre Brandon Sutter. "It's not an easy trophy to win. This year shouldn't be any different than other years. Whoever wins will be very deserving."

Vancouver's playoff chances look much better today than they did back on March 10 when they squeezed out a 5-4 shootout victory over the New York Islanders to unknowingly conclude the abbreviated regular season.

Sidelined at the time with a knee injury, all-star Jacob Markstrom is expected to be back between the pipes whenever play resumes against the Minnesota Wild.

"In my opinion you are going to have to play some pretty tough hockey and go through a lot of tough hockey teams and tough games," said Vancouver captain Bo Horvat. "It's still going to be tough to win the Stanley Cup."

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With time to recover from the regular season, most teams will be blessed with the services of most, if not all, of their star players.

"I really feel like it's going to be a harder Cup to win than most years — if not the hardest — because of a) the number of rounds and b) the strength of the teams and the health of the teams," said Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano. "It's going to be every team at their best basically.  

"When people talk about the asterisk, I think what people in the public are talking about are teams that, in other years, wouldn't have gotten into the playoffs with where they're sitting right now. We're not one of those teams."

Ranked 24th in league, the Montreal Canadiens are definitely one of "those" teams. In March, there was nothing to do but play out the string.

Then came the shutdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There's obviously a few teams like ourselves that have been given a second life," Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher told reporters on a video conference call.  "You just try and take advantage of that the best you can if all goes well."

As for the asterisk, Gallagher said that's not logical given the circumstances.

"For a team to go through five series potentially and win a Stanley Cup? I don't think there's anyone who can say they didn't deserve it."

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There is no asterisk engraved on the Stanley Cup alongside the 1995 New Jersey Devils, who won after a 48-game season due to a lockout. The same goes for the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes after an abbreviated regular season caused by labour strife.

After the customary 82-game regular season, Ward won the Stanley Cup in 2011 as an assistant coach with the Boston Bruins.

The Calgary coach figures the road ahead is just as steep – if not more so – for the eventual champions.

"You're going to go through the same grind," he said. "It basically is going to be a tournament like we have every year.

"But I just feel, with the extra round for the teams that have to play in, it could be the hardest Cup to win."

With files from Jim Morris

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