Phil Stacey column

Return To Play begins today.

So what does that mean for the President's Trophy winning Boston Bruins, the NHL's best team during the regular season but, like everyone else, have been off the ice for the last 4-plus months because of the coronavirus pandemic?

When the team gathers at Warrior Arena today for the first day of what's being called 'training camp', it'll be the first time they've all been together — players, coaches, management — since the season was paused 123 days ago.

What's going to transpire for the Bruins, as well for the other 23 teams that'll battle for the chance to win the Stanley Cup in this most bizarre of seasons, is literally anyone's guess.

Whether or not the playoffs can even be pulled off is far from a sure thing, with COVID-19 still ravaging the globe. Everyone involved in the game is certainly hopeful, with restriction upon restriction in place for teams that head to the two Hub cities in Toronto and Edmonton, and more safety guidelines in place than there are words in the dictionary. But until an attempt to pull this thing off takes place, no one really knows for sure.

Phil Stacey column: Return To Play means Bruins' path to a Cup begins anew today 

Goaltender Tuukka Rask and the Boston Bruins will hit the ice today at Warrior Arena in Boston for the first time in over four months.Associated Press photo

The Bruins will practice locally until July 26, when they'll head up to Toronto and be sequestered there as they wait for the playoffs to begin. As the first place finisher in the Atlantic Division, they'll have round robin games against the other teams that make up the East's top four squads: the Flyers (Aug. 2), Lightning (Aug. 5) and Capitals (Aug. 8), then figure out both their playoff seeding and first round opponent.

Should the Bruins make it through two rounds of postseason play, they'd then fly across Canada to Edmonton, where the conference finals and Stanley Cup best-of-7 will be held.

General manager Don Sweeney, who met via Zoom with reporters Sunday morning, had this to say as his players begin their quest of returning to the Cup final for the second straight year:

* A few international players (David Pastrnak? Ondrej Kase) may have to fulfill their quarantine requirements before they can practice, but figures that will only take a day or two.

* Any players wishing to ‘opt out’ of playing in the postseason because of COVID-19 concerns may do so without penalty or repercussions before 6 p.m. Monday (depth defenseman Steven Kampfer has already done so).

* When asked whether the unique nature of this year’s playoffs would mean the Bruins would rely more on a goalie tandem with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak as opposed to riding the hot hand, he stated the player’s performances would continue to determine who plays and who sits.

* He’ll accompany the team to Toronto;

* Perhaps most importantly, he acknowledged “we’re going to have positive cases throughout Phase 3 and Phase 4; we have to avoid an outbreak.”

There are so many variables at play here. Will the four-month layoff help an older Bruins' squad (average age: 28.5) that played into mid-June last year, or put a crimp in the momentum they had been riding all season? How will guys like Kase and Nick Ritchie, who came over at the trade deadline and were still getting used to their new linemates, perform on the second and third lines, respectively? How will the inevitable injuries that crop up affect the team's depth? What if, God forbid, there is some kind of outbreak among the team or a team they've played? 

Those are questions that no one can answer until they actually transpire (if they do at all). Right now, they're focused on doing whatever possible to lift the Stanley Cup in early October — it feels so strange to type that — and becoming the first squad to do so on Canadian soil since Boston did so in Vancouver in June 2011.

Today is Day 1 in the restart. The Bruins, and the NHL in general, hope for as few speed bumps as possible.

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Phil Stacey, the Executive Sports Editor of The Salem News, covers the Boston Bruins and the NHL for CNHI Sports Boston. Contact him at pstacey@salemnes.com and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN

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