One night down, 115 to go. The first night of the 2020-21 NHL season had no fans, but it also had no shortage of goals or compelling subplots. After missing what normally would have been the first three months of the season to COVID, the NHL returned Wednesday night to start a season that will be like no other.
What is usually a six-month marathon has been truncated into a four-month sprint and when the starter’s pistol went off on Day 1, the racers bounded out of the blocks. It’s a pace we should all try to get used to because there will be no let up between now and May 8 when the league finishes with a mind-boggling 15 games.
Most nights will be at least this busy, so plan accordingly. And while you wait for Day 2 of the proceedings, here were some of the best storylines from Day 1.
A ‘BITTERSWEET MOMENT’ FOR JON COOPER
As he watched the Stanley Cup banner be unveiled in a corner of Amalie Arena, Jon Cooper’s thoughts and emotions were in the moment. But they were also somewhere else very far, far away. In fact, they were across the continent, roughly 3,300 miles to the northwest in Prince George, B.C., where his father, Bob, was watching the game.
And for the first time in Jon Cooper’s life, his father was watching a game that his son was either playing or coaching in alone. Until last fall, Christine Cooper was on hand for every one of her son’s championships, from the North American Jr. League to the USHL to the American League. She couldn’t be in Edmonton when her son finally delivered a Stanley Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning last August, but Cooper figured that when everything got back to normal, he’d have plenty of time to share the Cup with both his parents.
But on the morning of Nov. 6, exactly 39 days after his son lifted the Stanley Cup over his head, Bob Cooper got up and turned on the television to tune in to the morning news as he did every day. And when he went to wake up his wife, as he also did every day, he was shattered to learn that his wife had died in her sleep at the age of 77. Christine Cooper had recently had hip replacement surgery and was losing some weight because she wasn’t eating. But it didn’t seem as though anything was terribly amiss, even the day before when Christine asked her husband not to go to the office at the construction company he owns that day.
“And then she told him she loved him three times that day,” Cooper said. “And the next day, Dad got up early to make sure the TV was on and she didn’t say anything. And he went over to give her a nudge and she was dead. The worst part was he tried to revive her and she was cold. That was tough for him.”
So in the space of five weeks, Cooper went from the highest point of his career to one of the lowest points of his life. Making things more difficult was the fact that his parents couldn’t be there for the Cup win and he couldn’t be at his mother’s funeral, both because of the COVID pandemic. The Lightning didn’t actually raise their banner, they unveiled it and hung it just above ice level. They’re waiting until they can have a building full of fans before they raise it to the rafters to join the banner for the championship they won in 2003-04.
So none of this is ideal. But celebrating a Stanley Cup, even in a largely empty building, is better than not celebrating at all. But for Jon Cooper, it wasn’t just the fans he missed for his team’s last night with the Cup before it embarked on a quest to get it back. “You don’t feel those emotions until I saw the guys do the semi-circle around for the unveiling,” Cooper said. “And then the emotions come back. And you think of your family and my mother. That was a bittersweet moment.”
OSKAR TO THE RESCUE, PART I
It’s a word that gets thrown around far too flippantly in hockey, but Kevin Hayes of the Philadelphia Flyers was absolutely bang-on when he referred to teammate Oskar Lindblom as “an ultimate warrior.” He probably could have thrown Nolan Patrick’s name into that description, too.
If you’re looking for inspiration early in this very bizarre, very unique season, you need look no further that Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick, two players who couldn’t have taken more opposite routes to the NHL, but who both ended up in the same place on opening night for the Flyers. The fact that they were both key contributors to the Flyers’ 6-3 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins made the story all that more compelling. After providing a healthy amount of inspiration to their teammates, they both went out and provided a goal each and some excellent all-round play.
There was a time not long ago when we all might have wondered when, or even if, we’d see either of them in the NHL again. Thirteen months ago, Lindblom’s third NHL season came to a screeching halt when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. And Patrick couldn’t even begin what should have been his third season, sidelined the entire season with migraine-related issues. Lindblom was able to make an inspiring return in Game 6 of the Flyers’ second-round loss to the New York Islanders, but that was in the bubble in Toronto. This was Game 1 of the season right in Philly and, as Flyers coach Alain Vigneault pointed out, probably the worst thing about not having fans in the seats is that the Flyers faithful wasn’t able to show Lindblom what he means to them.
“My one disappointment in tonight’s game is that Oskar played his first game at Wells Fargo since December of 2019,” Vigneault said. “And he didn’t get a chance to play it in front of the Flyers fans giving him the great cheer and love that he deserves for coming back after battling cancer. I thought of that going in and I talked to Oskar about it after the game. It would have been phenomenal to play this game tonight, Oskar back with this place full of fans. I’m sure he would have gotten the cheer he deserves.”
Even though Patrick’s health problems were not as serious or life threatening as Lindblom’s, he was off the ice for a lot longer. It speaks volumes that Vigneault enters his second season coaching this team and Wednesday night was the first game Patrick played for him. So, in many ways, it’s a clean slate for Patrick, the second overall pick in the 2017 draft who was trying to find his place as an NHLer even before the migraines sidelined him. In Year 4 of his career, the Flyers are still trying to figure out what they have in Nolan Patrick.
“I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows at this point,” Vigneault said. “I see him walking around with a jump in his step and a smile on his face. There’s no doubt that he’s happy to be back and every day that he’s around our team and that he’s on the ice and with his teammates, he gets better. Where that will lead, only time can tell.”
THE JOHN AND WILLY SHOW IN TORONTO
On a night when two players stood out for their sublime levels of brilliance, it speaks volumes about the culture of the game that almost all anyone could talk about in the wake of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-4 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens was Wayne Simmonds, a fourth-liner who had just over 10 minutes of ice time, getting into a fight.
Whatever. Neither William Nylander nor John Tavares is the type of guy who would get caught up in that nonsense, so they likely didn’t mind that their play took a backseat. But make no mistake, in a game and win in which the Leafs could not have more played to their identity, despite the off-season changes they made, Nylander and Tavares were otherworldly. The Simmonds fight may have given the Leafs some juice when they were down 3-1 to the Canadiens in the second period, but in order to win the game you actually have to have the players with skill who can make that momentum change mean something.
And that’s exactly what Nylander and Tavares did. And it’s what they’ve been doing for a long time. On a team that is stacked with offense, the two stars are actually kind of polarizing figures. There has been an awful lot of energy that has gone into both sides of the Nylander debate and Tavares, as gifted as he is, hasn’t delivered a playoff victory in two seasons and it could be argue that he gives them more of what they already possessed in abundance. But if you’re going to play in a 5-4 game, it’s better to be on the side that scores last and has the players who can bring a gun to an offensive gunfight.
Nylander finished the game with two goals and an assist and Tavares a goals and two assists, one of the helpers coming on the overtime winner by defenseman Morgan Rielly. For Nylander in particular, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe took heart in the fact that the advice he’s been imparting on the 24-year-old winger has not fallen on deaf ears.
“He’s a great talent,” Keefe said of Nylander. “He’s come in really motivated and driven to continue to be a difference maker and to take it to another level. We’ve had a lot of blunt discussions where he needs to continue to get better away from the puck and he’s bought into that. And it goes hand-in-hand. When he’s competing away from the puck, he’s more engaged when he has it and he’s more involved in the game. He and John were both really good.”
GREAT START FOR HOGLANDER
Nils Hoglander is barely 20 years old, but he’s already scored the Goal of the Year in the SHL, not once, but twice. Both on lacrosse goals, no less. The first goal of his NHL career wasn’t quite as eye-popping, but for the Vancouver Canucks rookie, it will be even more memorable. And what the goal might have lacked in artistic expression was certainly made up for in the celebration.
“It’s much bigger to score in the NHL,” Hoglander said after the Canucks 5-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers. “Best players in the (world). Yeah, it was fun to score.”
There aren’t many nights you outscore Connor McDavid, but that’s exactly what Hoglander did in his first night in the NHL. Playing on a line with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson, the second-round pick in the 2019 draft picked up right where he left off in training camp, where his play was the talk of the pre-season. The Canucks are going to have to wait for Vasili Podkolzin, their first-round pick in that draft, to finish his season in Russia before he can join them, but Hoglander’s positive first impression is making it look as though the Canucks may have knocked at least two draft picks out of the park.
“You see a guy in practice, you see a guy in scrimmage and you wonder how he’ll react to regular-season games,” said Canucks coach Travis Green. “And I thought he raised his game. He was good tonight.”
Even though the Canucks got all of that experience in the bubble during the playoffs last summer, they’re still a very young team. They don’t have any choice but to lean on their young players to make a contribution. But when it comes from such a relatively unheralded guy – Hoglander essentially stole Jake Virtanen’s job with his surprising play in camp – one observer compared it to playing with house money.
“He’s going to be playing a lot against these types of players throughout his career,” Pearson said. “So why not get thrown to the wolves early? But he did a great job.”
OSKAR TO THE RESCUE, PART II
In the hours leading up to their first game of the season, the St. Louis Blues felt pretty good about their second line. After all, having an emerging star in Robert Thomas between the hard-working Jaden Schwartz and newly acquired Mike Hoffman is a unit a lot of teams would probably like as their first line. But you know what they say about best-laid plans.
Less than an hour before their season-opener against the Colorado Avalanche, the Blues announced that Hoffman would not be eligible to play because Hoffman’s work visa had not yet been approved. No problem, however. The good thing about having a roster as deep as the Blues’ is you can put a Swedish Army Knife such as Oskar Sundqvist into the spot without missing a beat.
And that’s exactly what happened. Playing in Hoffman’s spot, Sundqvist scored two goals for the Blues in their 4-1 win over the Avalanche. Taking advantage of Thomas’ silky passing mitts, Sundqvist looked far more like a top-six forward than a bottom-six. But that’s the beauty of Sundqvist. He has the kind of low-maintenance humility that makes him perfect for the fourth line, but is versatile enough to move up the lineup when a spot comes open.
“He came up big tonight,” said Blues coach Craig Berube. “Just with the matchups, I thought it would be a good move to put ‘Sunny’ up there with Thomas and ‘Schwartzy’ with the (Nathan) MacKinnon line and the (Nazem) Kadri line and they did a great job.”
It’s a testament to the depth that GM Doug Armstrong has assembled in St. Louis. While many pundits are picking the Avs and the Vegas Golden Knights to win the West Division, they might want to consider that the Blues are just one year removed from winning the Stanley Cup. And while there’s no shortage of very good talent on this roster, it’s also because they have players such as Sundqvist that they’re continue to be a legitimate contender to win a championship.
Sundqvist normally would have played on the fourth line with Ivan Barbashev and Kyle Clifford – who celebrated his 30th birthday with his first goal for his new team – but he found out only when he got to the rink that his assignment had changed. “That doesn’t affect me too much,” Sundqvist said. “I’m just trying to play my game. It doesn’t matter who I play with and tonight it worked out great.”