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Top storylines that shaped NHL in 2020

Lightning's Cup win, Ovechkin's 700th goal, Ayres' victory among those from memorable year

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

The NHL has provided a host of memorable moments in 2020 despite being forced to persevere through the coronavirus pandemic.

After pausing its season on March 12, the NHL was able to come back on Aug. 1 and conduct the Stanley Cup Playoffs, culminating with the Tampa Bay Lightning winning their first championship since 2004. The NHL 2020 NHL Draft was held virtually before setting the stage for free agency and putting a plan in place to start the 2020-21 season.

Prior to the pandemic, there were outdoor games, historic events and achievements.

Here are 20 moments, games, events and news stories that defined the NHL in 2020:


1. Texas-sized Winter Classic

The year began with 85,630 fans jamming Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas on New Year's Day for the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators.

The Stars scored three goals in the third period to defeat the Predators 4-2. It was the second-largest crowd to attend an NHL game behind the 105,491 at the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The event featured live square dancing, pig races, jugglers, sword swallowers, bull riders and an actual Texas longhorn. Outside the stadium, spread across the Texas State Fairgrounds, fans ate corn dogs and fried Oreos, rode on a Ferris wheel and played carnival games.

Video: Recapping the best visuals of the Winter Classic


2. Women stars take over

The Elite Women's 3-on-3 presented by adidas at the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills presented by New Amsterdam Vodka at Enterprise Arena in St. Louis on Jan. 25 featured 10 of the best women's players from Canada against 10 of the best from the United States. 

Canada won 2-1, but the meaning of the event was even more important; a celebration of how far the women's game has come and how skilled the players are. The two teams shared the accolades after the game, raising their sticks to salute an appreciative and chanting crowd.


3. Kings soar at Air Force Academy

For the second time in three years, the NHL held an outdoor game on campus of a U.S. service academy, this time the 2020 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series game at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Feb. 15.

A sellout crowd of 43,574 watched the Los Angeles Kings defeat the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 with forward Tyler Toffoli scoring all three goals for the first hat trick in an NHL outdoor game. It was the League's 30th outdoor game.

The field was staged as an airfield with the cadets sitting in the north end and an F-16 Thunderbird fighter in the south. Stealth fighters, F-16s and a KC-10 tanker flew overhead and members of the Air Force's Wings of Blue parachute team dropped into the stadium to deliver the game puck.


4. Ovechkin scores No. 700

Alex Ovechkin became the eighth player in NHL history to score 700 goals when the Washington Capitals forward scored in a 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on Feb. 22. 

Ovechkin joined Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801), Jaromir Jagr (766), Brett Hull (741), Marcel Dionne (731), Phil Esposito (717) and Mike Gartner (708) as the other players to reach the milestone.

Video: WSH@NJD: Ovechkin scores 700th NHL goal


5. Ayres becomes goalie folk hero

Hours after Ovechkin's achievement, David Ayres became the first emergency backup goalie in NHL history to be credited with a win when the 42-year-old made eight saves for the Carolina Hurricanes in a 6-3 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena.

Ayres drives the ice resurfacing machine at Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto and is a regular at Maple Leafs practices when an extra goalie is needed. But he found himself in an NHL game, entering at 11:19 of the second period after goalie Petr Mrazek sustained an upper-body injury; the Hurricanes had already lost goalie James Reimer to an injury earlier in the game.

Video: CAR@TOR: Ayres makes history as emergency backup


6. NHL pauses season due to coronavirus

The NHL announced on March 12 it would pause the 2019-20 season indefinitely because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus. "Our goal is to resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent," Commissioner Gary Bettman said that day. 


7. Return to Play Plan and CBA extension announced

The NHL Return to Play Plan, announced May 26, featured 24 teams, the top 12 from each conference based on points percentage, with the top four teams receiving byes into the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the remaining eight playing in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

The League announced two secure hubs for the games, Toronto for the Eastern Conference teams and Edmonton for the Western Conference. The conference finals and Stanley Cup Final would each be played in Edmonton.

On July 10, The NHL and NHL Players Association jointly announced agreements for the resumption of the 2019-20 season and a four-year extension to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, through at least the 2025-26 season.

Training camps opened three days later.


8. NHL returns, Dumba kneels on historic night

The Hurricanes and New York Rangers dropped the puck at noon ET on Aug. 1 on a slate of five games spanning more than 13 hours to start the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers. 

The most impactful moment of the second opening day of the 2019-20 took place prior to the game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena.

Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba gave an impassioned speech vowing that the NHL and the Hockey Diversity Alliance would stand up for social justice and against racism, saying "hockey is a great game but it could be a whole lot greater, and it starts with all of us."

Players from the Oilers and Blackhawks surrounded Dumba, a Filipino-Canadian, as he spoke.

Dumba knelt during the Star-Spangled Banner, with Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse and Chicago goalie Malcolm Subban, each a Black Canadian, standing at his sides, their hands on his shoulders.

Video: Dumba gives powerful pregame speech


9. Lightning, Blue Jackets play marathon Game 1

The Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets played for six hours and 13 minutes of real time, 150:27 of game time in the first game of the Eastern Conference First Round on Aug. 11.

Tampa Bay won 3-2 on a goal by forward Brayden Point at 90:27 of overtime. The quintuple-overtime game was the fourth longest in NHL history, and the longest each by the Lightning and Blue Jackets. It started at 3:09 p.m. ET and ended at 9:22.

Tampa Bay and Columbus combined for a playoff record 151 shots on goal. 


10. Two-day protest by players against racism

Players from the eight teams remaining in the playoffs decided on Aug. 27 to not play for two days as a form of protest against systemic racism and police brutality. The NHL and NHLPA supported the players, postponed four games and resumed play Aug. 29.


11. Lindblom returns for Flyers

Oskar Lindblom was back in the Philadelphia Flyers lineup on Sept. 3 for the first time in almost eight months after being diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma; he had not played since Dec. 7, 2019 and had been undergoing treatment.

The forward played 17:30 and had three shot attempts, two hits and a block in the Flyers' 5-4 double-overtime win against the New York Islanders in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round.

Lindblom rang the bell signifying the end of his cancer treatments at Abramson Cancer Center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on July 2. 

Video: PHI@NYI, Gm6: Flyers, Isles tap sticks for Lindblom


12. Three Game 7s in two days

The second round of the playoffs ended with some great theater when the Stars, Vegas Golden Knights and Islanders each advanced to the conference finals with Game 7 wins in a span of 27 hours on Sept. 4-5. 

Dallas defeated Colorado 5-4 in overtime behind a hat trick by rookie forward Joel Kiviranta, who scored the tying goal at 16:30 of the third period and the winner at 7:24 of overtime.

Later that day, the Golden Knights allowed 14 shots on goal and defeated the Vancouver Canucks 3-0 to set up a Vegas-Dallas matchup in the Western Conference Final. Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner had the shutout.

The following day, goalie Thomas Greiss made 16 saves and the Islanders advanced with a 4-0 win against the Flyers, earning the opportunity to face the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.


13. Awards night

Unable to gather in person, the League honored the winners of some of the major awards with the 2020 NHL Awards presented by Las Vegas, a 30-minute show that aired on NBCSN, Sportsnet and TVA Sports on Sept. 21.

Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl became the first Germany-born player to win the Hart Trophy as NHL most valuable player and the Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player voted by the NHLPA. Draisaitl had already become the first Germany-born player to win the Art Ross Trophy as the top scorer in the League.

Roman Josi of the Predators won the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman in the NHL. He became the first Switzerland-born player to win a major NHL award and the first Nashville player to win the Norris.

Connor Hellebuyck became the first player in Winnipeg Jets history to win the Vezina Trophy as the top goalie in the League and Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar won the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year.

The League had previously announced the winners of the other major awards.


14. Stamkos plays, scores, sits

Steven Stamkos made his 2020 playoff debut in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against Dallas on Sept. 23 after missing the Lightning's first 22 postseason games with a lower-body injury. The Tampa Bay captain made the most of his five shifts totaling 2:47 of ice time.

The forward scored on his first and only shot to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead at 6:58 of the first period. He did not return to the ice; his last shift ended with 6:18 remaining in the first. He sat on the bench for the duration of Tampa Bay's 5-2 win. It was his first game in 211 days; he had sustained a lower-body injury prior to the start of the opening of training camp in July.


15. Lightning win Stanley Cup

Stamkos was back on the ice to accept the Stanley Cup from Commissioner Bettman following the Lightning's 2-0 win against the Stars in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on Sept. 28.

Tampa Bay became the first team in 95 years to win the Stanley Cup on neutral ice.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs, after scoring 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 25 games.

Tampa Bay's clinching victory came 363 days after the regular season began, 201 days after the season paused and 65 days after players entered the secure zones in Edmonton and Toronto for the postseason.

Video: TBL@DAL, Gm6: Lightning celebrate at buzzer


16. Rangers select Lafreniere with No. 1 pick

New York won the Second Phase of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery on Aug. 10 and cashed in nearly two months later, on Oct. 6, by selecting forward Alexis Lafreniere of Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

The draft was held virtually because of the pandemic and Lafreniere's draft party had to be limited to his parents, Nathalie and Hugo, and sister, Lori-Jane, because his hometown of Saint-Eustache, Quebec, was in a COVID-19 red zone.


17. "Who is Tim Stuetzle?"

Alex Trebek, the late longtime host of "Jeopardy!" announced the Ottawa Senators' first selection in the draft.

Trebek, who died on on Nov. 8 from pancreatic cancer, joined the draft show and, of course, announced the pick by starting with a question, "Jeopardy!" style. 

Answer: With the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, the Ottawa Senators selected this player.

Question: Who is Tim Stuetzle?

Trebek attended the University of Ottawa and is a recipient of the Order of Canada. 

Video: Alex Trebek announces Tim Stuetzle to Sens at No. 3


18. Free agency begins with a flurry of moves

The goalie market dominated NHL free agency when it opened on Oct. 9.

Jacob Markstrom signed a six-year contract with the Calgary Flames and the Canucks replaced him by signing Braden Holtby. The Capitals replaced Holtby with Henrik Lundqvist, who signed a one-year contract but announced on Dec. 17 that a heart condition will prevent him from playing this season.

Greiss (Detroit Red Wings), Corey Crawford (Devils) and Cam Talbot (Wild) found new homes, and Matt Murray signed with the Senators after they acquired him in a trade with the Penguins.

Two of the biggest free agents among skaters weren't signed until a few days after the market opened.

Forward Taylor Hall signed a one-year contract with the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 11. The next day, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo signed a seven-year contract with the Golden Knights.


19. Emrick calls it a career

Mike "Doc" Emrick announced his retirement on Oct. 19 after a 47-year career in broadcasting professional hockey, including the past 15 as the lead play-by-play voice on NBC.

The 74-year-old leaves the game after working the Stanley Cup Final 22 times as well as 45 Game 7s, six Olympics, 14 NHL All-Star Games and 19 NHL outdoor games. He estimates he has called more than 3,750 professional and Olympic hockey games.

Emrick won the Foster Hewitt Award, presented by the Hockey Hall of Fame for outstanding contributions to hockey broadcasting, in 2008. He was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011.

Video: Doc Emrick joins NHL Tonight to discuss retirement


20. NHL announces plan for 2020-21 season

The NHL and NHL Players' Association announced on Dec. 20 they had agreed to a 56-game season which would start on Jan. 13.  

The season has been delayed due to continuing concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

The agreement includes four realigned divisions for this season; the East, Central and West Divisions each have eight U.S.-based teams and the North Division is made up entirely of the seven teams based in Canada. 

Training camps will open Jan. 3, with the seven teams that didn't return to play last season allowed to start on Dec. 31.

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