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NHL ready to resume with playoff games today

New York Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin, left, and Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin skate for the puck during the third period in Raleigh, N.C., on Feb. 21. The teams have a rematch in the playoffs today. (AP file photo)

TORONTO — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took a short break from watching the final few exhibition games Thursday to ponder the significance of awarding the Stanley Cup some two months from now — should all go as planned.

The magnitude of the task it took to simply reach the cusp of resuming play following a 4 1/2-month pause certainly suggests this year’s celebration has the potential of being a shared experience.

“That’s a very profound question, and I think the answer is extraordinary times present extraordinary challenges. And it takes an extraordinary group of people with an extraordinary effort to get the result you want,” Bettman told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

“If you look at the NHL family as a whole, starting with our fans, our players, our people at the league office and our club, the focus, the determination, the desire and the effort — assuming we’re able to get to that goal — will have been the ultimate collaboration,” he added. “I believe whoever ultimately hoists the Stanley Cup will deserve it in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and probably still can’t.”

The first step towards closing the NHL’s most unique season begins today, with the start of the expanded 24-team playoffs in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta.

Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, left, celebrates with defenseman Marcus Pettersson after scoring the second of his two goals during the third period of a game against the New Jersey Devils on March 10 in Newark, N.J. (AP file photo)

A nine-day slate of potentially 52 games — depending on the results of the eight best-of-five series — will begin with the Carolina Hurricanes facing the New York Rangers at noon in Toronto. The top four teams in each conference, meanwhile, will play a round-robin series to determine seeding for the “first” round to begin Aug. 11.

Rust will certainly play a factor, given how the exhibition games over the past three days featured a mix of sloppy and surreal.

The crispness might take some time to develop after months with no action, and the ice conditions will need to be monitored in the summer heat — even in empty arenas — with as many as three games a day.

With players eager to hit opponents after weeks of practices and scrimmages, New York rivals Johnny Boychuk and Brendan Lemieux dropped the gloves for an old-time hockey tussle.

So much for self-isolation.

Keep in mind, too, what might spill over with teams quarantining in a “bubble” in the same hotels — though staying on separate floors.

“The chance for weirdness is probably inevitable,” New York Islanders veteran Cal Clutterbuck said.

“I’m sure there’ll be a lot of head down, walk right by, maybe just give a quick nod if you run into somebody,” he added, before breaking into a laugh.

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