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The lapsed fan’s guide to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The 2020 Stanley Cup Final between the Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the Western Conference champion Dallas Stars begins Saturday night in the Edmonton bubble.

As a service to fans who have a general interest in NHL hockey but have no idea what has happened in the past few months, we’re happy to provide this FAQ as a guide to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

More: Check out the full Stanley Cup Final schedule by clicking here.

The Stanley Cup Final is starting at the time when NHL training camps would normally be opening. How did we get here?

Like every other facet of life in 2020, the NHL was dramatically impacted by COVID-19. Its 2019-20 regular season was paused on March 12 due to concerns about the pandemic, with roughly a dozen games remaining. The next four months had the NHL and the players collaborating on not only a potential conclusion to the season but also a new collective bargaining agreement that would help navigate through the financial uncertainty.

On July 10, the NHL and the NHLPA announced a CBA extension through 2025-26 and an ambitious “return to play” plan: 12 Eastern Conference teams would play a postseason tournament in a Toronto bubble, while 12 Western Conference teams would do the same in an Edmonton bubble. The top four teams in each conference would compete in a round-robin tune-up for seeding; the other eight teams would play in a five-game series qualification round, after which the remaining teams would be seeded in a traditional 16-team tournament. There would be daily COVID testing, social distancing protocols and no fans in the arenas. The conference finals and Cup Final series would be held in Edmonton, which had remarkably low COVID numbers.

Phase 3, the return to training camp, started on July 13. Phase 4, the resumption of the season, had teams arriving in the “secure zones” on July 26. Hence, Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final scheduled for Saturday will be held roughly 56 days after the Stars and Lightning arrived in their bubbles. It will be the 20th game of the postseason for Tampa and the 22nd for Dallas.

Incredibly, the bubble has held: There have been zero positive tests for COVID-19 while the teams have been in the secure zones.

What’s so special about the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars playing for the Stanley Cup?

Good question. After two seasons of franchises winning their first-ever Stanley Cups — the Washington Capitals in 2018 and the St. Louis Blues in 2019 — we have a couple of repeat customers here. The Stars won the Cup in 1999 and made the Final three other times — in 2000, as well as in 1981 and 1991 as the Minnesota North Stars. The Lightning captured the Cup in their first trip to the Final in 2004, then lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015.

What makes this matchup historic for the NHL: It’s the first time two Sun Belt teams have played for the Stanley Cup. It’s actually been a banner year for nontraditional markets: Dallas hosted the Winter Classic in January at the Cotton Bowl against the Nashville Predators, the first Sun Belt edition of the NHL’s signature outdoor game.

For the superstitious among us: Since 2008, this is the sixth time a team that appeared in the Winter Classic has advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. Those teams are 1-4 in the championship round.

How did the Stars get here?

It’s been a tumultuous season in Big D. After losing in Game 7 of the second round to eventual champion St. Louis last postseason, the Stars added veteran free agents Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry to increase their playoff acumen. Dallas started the season with a thud, going 1-7-1, but followed that with a 17-4-2 stretch, establishing itself as one of the NHL’s best defensive teams. But on Dec 10, 2019, the team was rocked by the sudden firing of head coach Jim Montgomery for “unprofessional conduct.” He would later seek help for alcohol abuse and recently joined the Blues’ coaching staff.

Assistant coach Rick Bowness took over the Stars, becoming the NHL’s oldest head coach at 65 years old. Dallas had a record of 37-24-8 (third in the Central Division) but had lost six games in a row when the season was paused because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 12.

Expectations for Dallas were low in the postseason. The Stars went 1-2 in the round-robin and drew the Calgary Flames in the opening round. It was here that some of the coaching staff’s tweaks to the Stars’ game started to pay off. Dallas won the series in six games, scoring 21 goals.

The offensive roll continued against the Colorado Avalanche — or what was left of the Avs after injuries — as Dallas scored 28 goals in winning the semifinal series in seven games. The Stars captured Game 7 in overtime, as rookie forward Joel Kiviranta finished off a hat trick with the series-clincher.

In the Western Conference finals against Vegas, the Stars reverted back to their old defensively suffocating ways, limiting the Knights to eight goals in five games. Dallas got clutch goaltending from Anton Khudobin and timely scoring, including two overtime wins to bring their extra-session record to 5-0 in the postseason.

How did the Lightning get here?

Tampa Bay was humiliated last postseason, getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round after tying the NHL record for wins in the regular season (62). This season, coach Jon Cooper redoubled his efforts to get the Lightning to win “the right way” — not just relying on offensive flourish — and they eventually found their stride, at one point going on a 23-3-0 run. They were 43-21-6 at the pause, second place in the Atlantic Division.

They went 2-1 in the round-robin, drawing a first-round matchup against — who else? — the Blue Jackets. Game 1 of their series was an instant classic: the fourth-longest game in NHL history (150 minutes, 27 seconds), as No. 1 center Brayden Point scored in the fifth overtime. The Lightning got their revenge on Columbus with another overtime win in Game 5 to advance.

In the semifinals, the Lightning faced last year’s Stanley Cup runners-up, the Boston Bruins. After losing Game 1, Tampa roared back with four straight wins, eliminating the Bruins in Game 5 on a double-overtime goal by defenseman Victor Hedman.

In the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Islanders, the Lightning overcame their third consecutive strong defensive opponent to win the series in six games. Point missed two games due to injury, and the Islanders won them both. He returned in Game 6, and the Lightning continued their playoff bubble tradition: winning an elimination game in overtime, this time on an Anthony Cirelli goal.

How did these champions handle the trophy superstition?

The NHL is filled with quirky trophy sorcery. It’s been said that if a player touches the Stanley Cup before he earns the chance to do so, he’s cursed to never win one. It’s also been considered bad luck to touch the conference championship trophy, which is why you often see the winning team pose for a quick picture and then skate away from the hardware. That’s what Dallas did with the Clarence Campbell Bowl; when captain Jamie Benn was asked if it was due to superstition, he replied, “Uh, sure.”

On the other hand, Tampa Bay touched and lifted the Prince of Wales Trophy, after having not touched it in 2015 before losing in the Final to Chicago. “That was a no-brainer for us. We’re not superstitious but obviously didn’t touch it last time, so this year we did. That’s the end of it. We won one trophy and now we’re going for the next one,” said Hedman.

Who are the key players?

Nikita Kucherov, the 2018-19 NHL MVP, leads the Lightning with 26 points in 19 games. Point has 25 points in 17 games, including a share of the team lead with nine goals. Hedman also has nine goals, putting him three behind Paul Coffey of Edmonton (1985) for the most goals by a defenseman in a single postseason. Hedman, who has skated 26:31 on average in the playoffs, is likely the team’s top candidate for playoff MVP. In goal, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been quietly outstanding: 14-5 with a postseason-best .931 save percentage (minimum 14 games) and 1.82 goals-against average.

For Dallas, young star defenseman Miro Heiskanen leads the team with 22 points in 21 games. Captain Jamie Benn is having the playoffs of his life, with eight goals and 10 assists. His linemate, Alexander Radulov, has 14 points and two overtime game-winning goals. Rookie Denis Gurianov and veteran Joe Pavelski lead the team with nine goals each.

Who are the X factors for these teams?

For Dallas, it’s been goalie Anton Khudobin. The 34-year-old has been a “No. 1-B” goalie at best during this NHL career. With Ben Bishop out, he’s backstopped the Stars to the Stanley Cup Final, going 12-6 with a .920 save percentage and a 2.62 goals-against average. His best series came in the conference finals against Vegas. His athletic, scrambling style led teammate Tyler Seguin to compare Khudobin to former playoff MVP Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins.

For Tampa, it’s a collection of veteran role players that GM Julien BriseBois added to the team in the last year. Forwards Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Patrick Maroon, and defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian have all played exceptionally well in the playoffs and are doing the little things to help the team succeed, something they lacked last postseason.

We haven’t heard much about Steven Stamkos yet. What’s up with the Lightning’s captain?

It’s been a frustrating season for Stamkos, the Lightning’s 30-year-old offensive star. He had 66 points in 57 games but was forced to leave the lineup on Feb. 25 to have core muscle surgery. His recovery time would have allowed him to rejoin the team in the restart … except he then suffered a lower-body injury during workouts in June and hasn’t played a minute in the postseason.

He’s skating again, but coach Jon Cooper said “definitely nothing’s changed in the playing department any time soon.” Stamkos did join his teammates in celebrating the conference championship on the ice after Game 6.

Are there any personal connections between the teams?

Yes, and it’s primarily between the coaches. Bowness, who has coached in the NHL since 1984, was an assistant coach in Tampa Bay from 2013 to ’18. Cooper’s first season in the NHL as Lightning head coach in 2013 was Bowness’ first season with the team, and Cooper has credited Bowness with being a mentor who helped him adjust to the league.

The goalie on that team was Ben Bishop, who starred with the Lightning from 2012 to ’17 before arriving in Dallas in 2017-18. He’s currently “unfit to play,” as his backup Khudobin has taken over the crease.

What is ‘We’re not going home’?

It’s the rallying cry for the Dallas Stars in the bubble, uttered in the dressing room by everyone from Benn to Kiviranta to Khudobin, most memorably after Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. It’s made all the more impressive when one is wearing a Dallas logo the size of a hubcap around one’s neck.

Finally, what are the odds on this series?

Caesars has the Tampa Bay Lightning as a -165 favorite to win the Stanley Cup over Dallas (+145). But the Stars are more than comfortable at this point when it comes to entering a series as the underdog.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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