Fans won’t be in the stands.
Games will be in one of two centralized locations instead of alternating between NHL teams’ home rinks.
And some competitors, like the Wild, will have to pass an entrance exam just to stick around.
But the prize at the end of this unprecedented playoff pursuit, the Stanley Cup, hasn’t changed.
“I don’t think it’ll look the same, clearly,” interim coach Dean Evason said. “It can’t. But as far as what the players feel, I do believe it’ll feel the same and I do believe it’ll mean the same.”
The Wild will officially reconvene Monday at Tria Rink in St. Paul for training camp after a 123-day lag in the season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, the league and its players agreed to not only a return to play plan but also a collective bargaining extension reflective of the strains put on the NHL by the abrupt shutdown on March 12.
A 24-team postseason tournament will finally bring resolution, even though the circumstances won’t be typical.
While top-ranked teams participate in round-robin play to determine seeding, everyone else will square off in a qualifying round to advance to the usual four-round, best-of-seven format.
That’s where the No. 10 Wild’s journey starts, with a best-of-five showdown against No. 7 Vancouver that begins Aug. 2 in Edmonton, where the team will live in a bubble setup during the ongoing pandemic.
With nearly three weeks to prepare, the Wild will have plenty of time to address some key issues as it regroups for a chance at the Cup.
Backup Alex Stalock was the de facto starter the last time the Wild was together, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be in goal for Game 1 vs. the Canucks.
He and normal No. 1 Devan Dubnyk will be scrutinized during camp, along with Kaapo Kahkonen, the American Hockey League’s goaltender of the year. Mat Robson will also be in camp.
Analytics and past performance will play a role in the decision of who will start, but what these goalies show in camp will also matter. “It’s about how they perform,” Evason said.
Winger Kevin Fiala was the breakout star of the Wild’s much-improved second half that helped the team get included in this expanded postseason field, and he could be an X factor against Vancouver if he picks up where he left off.
In his last 18 games, Fiala scored 14 goals and added 12 assists.
“I know who I am, and I think this is who I am — what I was the last few months,” Fiala said in March.
Reigniting the offense
When the season stopped, the Wild had one of the most aggressive offenses in the NHL — scoring a league-high 43 goals over the 12 games Evason was at the helm after replacing the fired Bruce Boudreau.
“We wanted to play faster, move the puck quicker and get our defensemen more involved,” winger Zach Parise said.
Rediscovering that potency after a four-month break will be challenging, but team brass has been doing its homework — not only circling back on the most recent line combinations but evaluating what worked throughout the season.
Blue line shuffle
Carson Soucy has healed the upper-body injury that had him sidelined when the season paused, but the Wild defense won’t be returning at full strength.
Greg Pateryn won’t play in the tournament because of what the team lists as an upper body injury, and the opening enables Soucy to slide back into the top six. He could fill out a third pairing next to Brad Hunt.
Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba remain in the top four, but Soucy did shine when he was paired with Brodin earlier in the season.
Tallying the reinforcements
Although there are 34 players in camp (33, not counting Pateryn), the Wild can take 31 to Edmonton.
Among the minor leaguers getting a look are AHL MVP and Iowa Wild leading goal scorer Gerry Mayhew and the AHL’s top point-getter, Sam Anas. Center Nico Sturm, defenseman Louie Belpedio and prospect Calen Addison also are at camp.
With the team needing to make only a few cuts, The bulk of this group will be along for the ride even though many might not suit up. Still, these next few weeks can help the coaches build a depth chart should the Wild need to make lineup adjustments due to injury or performance.