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Professional hockey is making its return

As we continue to work through the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing a greater number of groups and organizations figure out ways to at least return to something resembling their normal schedules.

That’s especially true in the world of sports. This year’s college football season, which came to an end Monday night when Ohio State faced Alabama in the national championship game, saw more than 80 percent of its scheduled games played. NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1 were able to complete modified schedules and crown champions. The PGA and LPGA tours have been able to resume play. Major League Baseball crowned a World Series champ, the National Basketball Association put on a show with its Finals and the National Hockey League presented the Stanley Cup.

The National Football League made it through its regular season with a few postponements but no cancellations.

And, while college basketball has seen numerous postponements and cancellations, the NBA has been able to abandon the bubble it used to complete its 2019-2020 season and is a couple of weeks into its 2020-21 season.

For hockey fans in the Tri-State Area, the wait for the NHL’s return to the ice comes to an end Wednesday, when the Penguins travel to face their arch-rival Philadelphia at 5:30 p.m. in the opening game of the 2021 season.

Like everything else, this year’s season will have a different look. The league has pared its regular-season schedule down to 56 games. Temporary division lineups have been put into place — including a separate division for the Canadian teams as a way to combat the travel restrictions that would keep teams from the United States and Canada from crossing the borders.

And, while teams will be playing home games in their own arenas, the number of fans who can attend games will be severely restricted — if they are allowed at all.

The Penguins are facing a lot of questions as the season opens, concerns that became painfully obvious in August, when they dropped three of the four games they played against Montreal to be eliminated from the NHL’s tournament-in-a-bubble after just a few days.

After a second game in Philadelphia at 7 p.m. Friday, the Penguins will open their home schedule at noon Sunday when Washington visits PPG Paints Arena. It will be the team’s first home game since March 8, when it dropped a 6-2 decision to Carolina just a few days before the league suspended play because of the coronavirus.

It’s been a long time since we have been able to hear the familiar phrase “It’s a hockey night in Pittsburgh.” That wait is almost over, and knowing that gives us a little more room to be optimistic about the future.

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