TORONTO - It's been 143 days - nearly 40 percent of 2020 - since the Carolina Hurricanes last played a hockey game.
That was their 68th game of the season, a midweek match-up against the Detroit Red Wings that ended in a 5-2 win for the Canes, their third in a row.
The next day, the National Hockey League paused the 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nearly five months later, the puck is set to drop on the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, a best-of-five postseason round that pits the sixth-seeded Canes against the New York Rangers.
"We're excited. It's been a long wait," said Brady Skjei, who the Canes acquired from New York at the trade deadline. "We've been itching to get back. Our team is fired up to play. Me personally, I'm really excited."
The Qualifying Round
Winning the Stanley Cup is said to be the toughest 16 wins in sports.
It's going to take 19 wins this year for the Canes to capture hockey's ultimate prize.
"To go through this type of playoffs … whoever wins this is going to earn it," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said during Phase 3. "You've got to grind this out."
Video: "Both guys [goalies] will get action."
The lone asterisk beside this championship will be just how tough it was to win it. Every team has had multiple months to rest, refresh and recalibrate. Every team is at essentially full strength. And this year, there's an extra round to grind out just to get to the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Even minus a packed house and a raucous playoff atmosphere, the Cup Qualifiers are going to feature high-stakes hockey.
"The intensity will be there. As for momentum shifts with the crowd and all that stuff, that might not be quite the same, obviously, but I Know for a fact as soon as that puck drops, it's going to be intense," Jordan Staal said. "It's going to be a good game. It's going to be a good battle."
It's been 34 years since the NHL last staged a best-of-five postseason series. In the 56 series that took place in the 1980s, the team that won Game 1 went on to win the series 49 times (87.5 percent).
"You always prepare to win every game that you play," Brind'Amour said. "The difference is, I think the stress level goes up if you don't win that first one. The runway is less to get back."
"Every game in the playoffs is extremely important, but getting off to a good start in a five-game series is definitely a huge thing," Skjei said. "You don't want to fall down."
Necas Hopeful, Hamilton Out
Martin Necas joined the Canes at practice on Friday, skating on the right wing alongside Vincent Trocheck and Nino Niederreiter. The hope that Necas, who had not practiced since leaving Saturday's skate in Raleigh, will be able to draw into the lineup.
GAME 1 PROJECTED LINEUP
Necas, who will be making his NHL playoff debut, has won championships in each of his last three professional seasons (HC Kometa Brno in 2017 and 2018, and Charlotte Checkers in 2019).
"Marty looked really good today. He felt good. We'll see how that goes tomorrow and make sure he feels the same way," Brind'Amour said. "We hope to see him in the lineup."
The Canes will not see Dougie Hamilton in the lineup, though. Hamilton, who hasn't seen game action since mid-January when he broke his left fibula, left last Wednesday's skate in Raleigh and hasn't been able to practice since. He did skate following Friday's team practice, but he won't be available for the weekend.
"He's getting better, for sure, but he's unfit, so he won't be in there tomorrow," Brind'Amour said. "We're certainly not going to rush him back. If he's close to being able to play, he's going to get in there. We know the importance of having him in the lineup. That's a huge, huge loss for us, so we want to get him back in there ASAP."
The Last Meetings
As Metropolitan Division opponents, the Canes and Rangers met up four times in the shortened regular season: twice in November, once before the new year and a final time in late February. The Rangers outscored the Canes, 17-9, and swept the season series.
Video: SAP by the Numbers: Rangers vs Hurricanes
"I think the whole regular season is so gone far back, that even if we won four in a row or whatever, I just think it would be such a non-factor," Brind'Amour said. "Everybody is coming in different right now and starting fresh. That's the key."
The Rangers enter this 24-team postseason tournament as the 11th seed in the Eastern Conference after finishing the abbreviated regular season with a 37-28-5 record and 79 points. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy finalist after ranking third in the league in points (95) and tied for second in assists (63) in 69 games. Mika Zibanejad ranked fifth in the league in goals (41) and totaled 75 points in 57 games.
Video: "It's going to be intense."
"They have some high-end skill," said Skjei, someone who can provide a detailed scouting report on the Canes' opponent. "A main part of our game is puck pressure and being aggressive, so if we can stay above them and take away their time and space, it will definitely play into our hands. You can't give those guys much room because they will make plays. Stay on them, keep that puck pressure up and limit their space."
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