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The NHL playoffs show the NFL can have the least compromised COVID champion

The Penguins quick exit in the Stanley Cup playoffs to an inferior team is further proof that the NFL sure did luck out with being able to conduct a fairly normal regular season amid the ongoing pandemic.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Friday evening, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had a 40-23-6 mark when the NHL regular season came to a screeching halt in March due to the ongoing pandemic, were eliminated from the qualifying round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in four games by the Montreal Canadiens, a team that, with a record of 31-31-9, needed binoculars to see the top of the Eastern Conference wildcard standings when the regular season came to a close nearly five months ago.

No Penguins fans were obviously in attendance at the Eastern Conference playoff bubble in Toronto, but if they were, in addition to screaming “Shoot the puck!” they likely would have complained about Pittsburgh’s lack of effort—for a fourth-straight game.

How bad was this loss? I saw at least one reporter on Twitter describe it as the worst one in the history of professional sports. I don’t know if I’d go that far—as a huge Pirates fan, I’m still in therapy over the ending of Game 7 of the NLCS. But you know the saying about how, if two teams played each other 100 times, one would win 99 times?

Maybe the lone triumph for the inferior squad is more prone to happen when the postseason begins immediately after four-plus months off.

In other words, perhaps there was a reason the Penguins looked listless and lifeless during the four-game series.

I know I said recently that past championships won after shortened seasons were never really questioned in terms of legitimacy. So why should it be the case for one that occurs during a COVID crisis? But I didn’t truly consider the dynamic of beginning the playoffs immediately after a lengthy layoff.

Think about it, after four-plus months away, I don’t care how good a team’s record is, it’s basically starting a brand-new season once it resumes play. The team chemistry will likely be different. The team rhythm will likely be different, and playing in a bubble without fans certainly doesn’t help when trying to rediscover such things.

Yes, the NFL had a lengthy work-stoppage in 1982, which cut the regular season down to nine weeks, but at least teams still got to play seven more regular season games before the playoffs began.

MLB was shut down for nearly two months a year earlier due to the 1981 players’ strike, but play resumed two months before the start of the postseason.

It’s one thing to enter the playoffs after a shortened season, it’s quite another thing to begin them immediately after a lengthy layoff.

Obviously, there wasn’t much the NHL could do, other than scrap the Stanley Cup playoffs or go with the NBA’s plan of having a two-week finish to the regular season. Neither option is nearly as attractive as the NFL’s current plan—staying healthy and playing a full regular season schedule.

So, the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and all the teams who will be vying for the postseason this January have once again been blessed with the gift of time. Contenders will also be blessed with chemistry, rhythm and momentum as they enter the playoffs.

Although, if they lose, the idea of playing in a bubble city without fans may look a lot more appealing in the future.