By the time the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks cap their regular seasons, the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins will be well into the first round of their playoff series.
Another bizarre anomaly in an NHL season with a COVID-19 backdrop is two teams’ regular seasons overlapping with other clubs’ playoff series.
Neither the Flames nor the Canucks will make the postseason, but they’re still squaring off Sunday in the first of three remaining games for which the results will count only toward where the clubs rank in the entry draft lottery.
Every other NHL club will have concluded its regular season by the time Washington and Boston meet in Game 1 on Saturday.
But Calgary and Vancouver still have to make up three games originally scheduled for late March and early April. Vancouver also has to play the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday.
The games were put off when a COVID-19 outbreak swept through the Canucks’ locker room, and halted their schedule for three weeks.
So an NHL regular season that was originally going to close May 8 will finish with back-to-back meetings of the Canucks and Flames on Tuesday and Wednesday.
All playoff series involving U.S. teams will be under way by Monday. The Winnipeg Jets and Oilers open their first-round series Wednesday after the Canucks-Flames game.
Playing out the string while other teams have already embarked on their Stanley Cup quest will be weird, Flames forward Milan Lucic said. “Yes. Yes it will. Especially when they’re meaningless games,” he said.
If the start of playoffs overshadow each club’s final efforts in a difficult season, both organizations seem resigned to it.
“I definitely don’t feel any disrespect from it,” Lucic said.
Said Flames captain Mark Giordano: “With COVID, it’s a unique year. With the shutdown that happened in Vancouver, we knew this was a possibility for a while now. The league really doesn’t have much of a choice with the time frame.”
Flames head coach Darryl Sutter agreed the NHL doesn’t have the option of starting an already-delayed postseason after Calgary and Vancouver are done.
“I think they’ve got to get it going not only for the interest part, but for TV,” Sutter said. “If they didn’t start, it would just be too long off, I think.”
Vancouver’s closing schedule is arduous with seven games in 10 days, including five on the road. Saturday’s game in Edmonton against the playoff-bound Oilers has the Canucks playing a pair of back-to-backs with one day of rest in between.
“We’ve got to play the games and the schedule is what it is,” Canucks head coach Travis Green said. “I’ll talk to players individually to see how they’re feeling, have open, honest communication with players. But guys want to play. They don’t want to not play.”
Other than draft lottery position, scouting for next season and the joy of playing hockey in an empty arena, there are few incentives for the Flames and Canucks to keep playing into the middle of next week.
There are commercial and corporate commitments, however, which Vancouver-based sports marketing expert Tom Mayenknecht says are prevailing in this situation.
“The main reason why the league is forging ahead is because of the business operations side of things, trying to get as much of the pro-rated television and radio money as possible, be able to say to their sponsors that they got 56-82nds of a season in,” Mayenknecht said.
“At best, it’s confusing for fans to see the Canucks and the Flames playing only for the statistics and on the other hand you’ve got the Boston Bruins opening up against Washington on Saturday.
“So there’s a bit of a cannibalization effect that’s also highly questionable to me. You really want fans to be focused on the Stanley Cup playoffs. And I think this kind of dilutes what they’re putting into market.”