TORONTO (AP) – Tyler Toffoli had just filled the net for consecutive nights against his former team.
The Montreal winger scored a hat trick in a 6-5 shoot-out loss to Vancouver and followed 24 hours later with two goals and one assist in a 7-3 win.
Toffoli then spent a day off mostly alone in his hotel room due to COVID-19 restrictions before meeting the Canucks again in an empty Rogers Arena.
“The first game I thought, ‘This is funny,'” he told the Canadian Press. “In the second game I thought, ‘OK.’ And when we played in them a (third) time in a row, it was said: ‘I don’t want to see you anymore.’ I say, ‘This is ridiculous.’ “
Montreal would win that match 5-2 before heading back east, but similar scenarios to that road trip in January would repeat themselves over and over again in the North Division. Compressed schedules, the same opponents, long flights, no fans and a lot of alone time.
“To be honest, mentally probably the toughest (season),” said Toffoli.
The NHL has changed all of its divisions for 2020-21 – a season shortened to 56 games – with the aim of reducing travel and potential COVID-19 exposure. The league’s 24 U.S. teams were mostly regionally grouped into three self-contained loops, and many eventually saw fans back in sizeable numbers when the vaccines hit the market.
This was not the case in Canada, where the seven teams played due to coronavirus border rules related to non-essential travel across four time zones and thousands of kilometers.
The final North Division is now just a memory, although players won’t soon forget it.
“Just non-stop hockey every day,” said Toronto star Auston Matthews. “When we had two days between games, it was almost like a vacation.”
Edmonton’s defense attorney Darnell Nurse said there had been some difficult moments but they had paled in comparison to what was happening in society.
“We are some of the few people who have had some sort of normalcy in our lives,” he said. “I’ll look back and say, ‘It’s been a tough time for sure. But there’s nothing to really complain about.'”
Vancouver goalkeeper Thatcher Demko, whose team was suffering from a massive COVID-19 outbreak, called it “hopefully the toughest hockey season I have to play”.
“I’m going to tell a few stories about what this season actually looked like,” he said. “Hopefully my kids won’t believe me because it’ll sound so rude at this point. It was crazy. “
Ottawa’s defender Thomas Chabot said one of the pluses was being able to play in an all-Canadian league – a unique experience that dates back to the NHL’s original Six.
“It would have been fun with the fans,” he said. “It was a different year, it was a different experience, but at least we got to play.”
At the same time, Toronto winger Mitch Marner said the restrictions made it difficult to bond with teammates.
“There were rules for playing cards and sitting at tables,” he said. “You had to sit with certain people. You really had to find other ways to be personal. “
Marner said the Maple Leafs – and this would undoubtedly apply to the Senators and Canadians – had difficulty adjusting to the trip compared to what they are used to from the Eastern Conference.
“We’d have to go to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, some of those places a day before the games,” he said. “It’s a five hour flight and then a two or three hour clock change. That influenced you differently. “
Winnipeg center Mark Scheifele said he has gained a new appreciation for little moments that make an NHL season enjoyable.
“To see your family and friends, to let them come and visit you … fans in the building,” he said. “The smallest thing that you take for granted gives you a new perspective in my opinion.”
Matthews said the regular season of the pandemic will remain one, despite the numerous challenges facing it.
“The year that COVID happened and all the restrictions and just playing in Canada … I’m going to look back on it kind of cool,” said Matthews. “Not many people can say that about themselves. It was different … we made the best of it. “
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