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Can hockey be a summer sport? Only if Lightning fans are lucky

John Romano | The NHL is preparing scenarios to resume the season if the coronavirus curve begins to flatten. One scenario includes the Stanley Cup finals in late August.

TAMPA — The pause button was pushed on the NHL season on March 12.

Nearly three weeks later, hockey officials are not yet ready to push the panic button.

Even with President Trump announcing Sunday that social distancing guidelines would be in place until April 30, the NHL still seems confident — or at least it is planning contingencies — for the crowning of a Stanley Cup champion in 2020.

Is that wishful thinking? Perhaps, since the spread of coronavirus is difficult to predict, especially when you’re factoring in the well-being of 31 teams that are spread across two countries, 17 states and five provinces.

Still, there is a considerable amount of money at stake. And if players can slowly begin to work back into shape in controlled settings, the timetable starts to look a little more plausible.

So how would this work? Here are some of the factors at play:

• The league has quietly begun contacting teams to reserve arena dates into late August. The playoffs were originally scheduled to begin around April 8 with the final game somewhere around June 10. That means the NHL could conceivably begin the postseason around the first of July and play four full rounds by August 31.

• With the Olympics officially off the 2020 calendar, there is a huge hole in NBC’s prime time television lineup in July and August. NBC also just happens to be the NHL’s television partner.

• The idea of playing a handful of regular-season games — and maybe even the early rounds of the playoffs — without fans in the arena is something the NHL appears willing to entertain if individual states or cities are still enforcing stay-at-home edicts.

Naturally, none of this is guaranteed. If, two weeks from now, it appears coronavirus cases are still on a steep, upward trajectory, the odds of seeing hockey this summer will be considerably lessened.

But the working theory right now is that if teams can get back on the ice sometime in May, there is a path forward. A two-week training camp followed by 2-3 weeks of regular season games would allow the postseason to start by late June or early July.

If necessary, the early rounds of the playoffs could also be changed from a best-of-7 format to a best-of-5.

Under this scenario, next season would likely be pushed back a month to give players time to recuperate before returning to work. The 2020-21 regular season could be tightened to eliminate the All-Star Game and some off-days to ensure an 82-game schedule.

So what’s the takeaway from all of this?

Just the notion that all of this is on the table and being discussed is an indication of how serious league officials are about having a postseason. And considering Tampa Bay’s string of near-misses in recent years, along with a 43-21-6 record this season, any hope for a postseason is worth contemplating.

While former MVPs Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby suggested during a conference call last week that they would be fine with skipping the end of this regular season and going right into the playoffs, that does not appear to be the working plan. Most teams have already played 69-71 games, which means it would take roughly three weeks to complete an 82-game season.

A possible compromise could be a 75- or 76-game schedule. Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who was on an NHL-sponsored conference call Monday afternoon, said he was in favor of at least an abbreviated finish to the regular season.

“You’re going to get a lot of different answers if you ask different guys, but it would be tough to jump straight into the playoffs,’’ Hedman said. “There’s no question about it, this is uncharted waters for everyone. So without knowing when it’s going to re-start, we’re hoping to get a few games in before the playoffs start.

“It’s tough to see where this is going to end, you just have to pray and hope that guys are staying in shape. And like I said earlier, hockey is really secondary right now. It’s about health.’’

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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