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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

This Stanley Cup tournament is different, but it's still legitimate

NHL signage is viewed along with a high-angle

NHL signage is viewed along with a high-angle television camera as New York Islanders and Washington Capitals players warm up prior to NHL Eastern Conference Stanley Cup playoff hockey action in Toronto, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. Credit: AP/Nathan Denette

The Islanders are 14 victories away from their first Stanley Cup since 1983, which is exactly what Barry Trotz does not want his players talking or thinking about at this stage

All that matters is Game 3 against the Capitals in a first-round playoff series that resumes on Sunday.

Fair enough. But those of us who follow the Islanders and the wider NHL and have watched this strangest of all Cup tournaments cannot help peeking into the future and considering this:

Should there or should there not be an unofficial, unwritten, understood asterisk beside the name of this year’s winner?

This was a popular topic in the weeks leading up to the NHL’s restart from its COVID-19 hiatus, with pretty much everyone involved in the league insisting all would be kosher.

“I believe whoever wins that final game in the Stanley Cup Final and wins the last game is deserving of being awarded that," Islanders president Lou Lamoriello said in May. “In my opinion, it's been done right. I feel who gets that trophy deserves it.”

Saying anything other than that would have been bad for business, and for morale.

That is why the rest of us are the real judges of whether inviting 50% more teams to the tournament than usual and erasing factors such as travel and home crowds from the grind delegitimizes the whole thing.

The verdict is in: No, it does not.

The strangest thing about the Cup quest to this point has been the lack of strangeness.

The absent fans in Toronto and Edmonton are far less noticeable than in Major League Baseball, and the way players have reacted to highs and lows looks almost identical to what one might expect in normal times.

That was seen most memorably on Tuesday when the Lightning defeated the Blue Jackets in five overtimes, and it was no less dramatic than it would have been in a full arena in April.

The game results so far reflect the usual randomness of the NHL, where favorites lose to upstarts every spring, even with teams entering these playoffs far healthier and better rested than in a normal season.

In some respects, being in a hub for weeks on end does make things easier.

“This bubble has been different in a lot of ways,” the Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck said, “but at the same time you’re not left with much to think about other than the game and the guys you have with you on your team.

“So in a way, the focus is a little more singular . . . In a way, it’s easier to just continue to be dialed in.”

Not for everyone, though. That point was driven home on Saturday with the news that Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask had opted out of the playoffs for family reasons.

It was a shocking development in hockey terms, but Islanders coach Barry Trotz and captain Anders Lee spoke eloquently and compassionately about the balance everyone in the bubble must strike between professional and family obligation.

“I think that takes a lot of strength to do that in a situation where he wants to be there for his teammates,” Lee said.

It was a reminder that in addition to qualifying round participants such as the Islanders having to win 19 games to secure the championship, there also are emotional hurdles to overcome along the way.

Will it be weird when Lee or some other NHL captain parades the Cup around the ice in an empty arena in Edmonton early this fall? It will.

Will the achievement itself be cheapened? It will not.

New York Sports