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Hockey is back

This will be a weekend many of us have been waiting for since March.

For the first time in more than four months, there will be nearly a full slate of professional sports in action. And while we will not attempt to downplay the seriousness of the situation that surrounds us as we continue to fight our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be an opportunity to relax a little and, if only for a brief time, take our minds off of the problems that surround us.

The Pirates, for instance, open a three-game series in Chicago today. The NBA resumed play Thursday, and play in the WNBA will continue. NASCAR will be racing in New Hampshire, and Formula 1 drivers will be competing on the fabled Silverstone circuit in Great Britain. The PGA Tour has stopped in Memphis and the LPGA Tour is in Toledo.

Into this mix we welcome the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup playoffs, and that means the Penguins will return to the ice at 8 p.m. Saturday when they open their qualifier series against Montreal.

It will be the team’s first game since March 10, when the Pens claimed a 5-2 win in New Jersey (not counting Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to Philadelphia in an exhibition game.) There also will be a different look and a different feel to that game — and all that are played as part of the NHL’s tournament. There will be no spectators, and every game involving an Eastern Conference team will be played in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena. (Western Conference games are being played in Edmonton.)

Plus, it actually will be in a play-in round before the Stanley Cup playoffs actually begin, and each series in the qualifying round will be best-of-five. It’s a playoff format the league has not used since 1986, and it will add even more intensity to the traditional battle for the Cup. Teams advancing through the qualifying rounds will move on to the best-of-seven format, which is grueling in itself, but even more so when you consider the Penguins would need to win 19 games and lose no more than 14 games during the next couple of months to win the sixth Stanley Cup in franchise history.

The Penguins find themselves in a good position — Sydney Crosby, arguably the best player in the league, anchors a solid lineup that includes Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist, Conor Shear, Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. The team is blessed with two top-tier goalies in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. It shapes up as a team that could have a very long run in the playoffs.

That’s in the future, though, and as we know, there’s a lot of hockey to be played. But that’s the beauty the Stanley Cup playoffs always have held and exactly what makes the Cup, arguably, the most difficult trophy to win in all of sports.

Thrown into the mix is the uncertainty of what COVID-19 could hold. While the NHL and NBA have adopted the bubble format for the remainder of their schedules in which teams are sequestered and all games are played in a central location, Major League Baseball elected to allow teams to play in their home stadiums, which means there’s travel involved. An example of what can go wrong came this week when the Miami Marlins had to postpone several games after 15 players and two staff members tested positive for coronavirus. That serves as a warning to how tenuous the coming weeks could be.

It will be quite a while before we can celebrate the phrase “It’s a hockey night in Pittsburgh” inside PPG Paints Arena, but at least for now, we are happy to be able to join in with the just-as-familiar “Let’s go Pens” for what we hope is a long run.

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