The Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks open the 2021 season in Florida on Wednesday night riding a shifting wave of ups and downs.
For starters, the Lightning open the 56-game campaign as the NHL's defending Stanley Cup champions, but they won't be defending their title in front of home fans right away.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, the organization announced Saturday that Amalie Arena -- also home to the NBA's Toronto Raptors -- wouldn't allow fans before at least Feb. 7.
Coach Jon Cooper's club entered the playoff rounds as the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed and compiled a 16-6 mark over four series in claiming their second Cup -- beating the Dallas Stars in six games.
But the holiday season delivered some bad news for the champs, who hold the NHL's best points percentage (.704, 18-7-2) in 27 season openers.
Two days before Christmas, the Lightning learned that star right winger Nikita Kucherov would undergo hip surgery and be sidelined the entire regular season.
"It's our job as a group -- players, coaches, management -- to get ourselves into the playoffs," Lightning GM Julien BriseBois said, "so that we give (Kucherov) an opportunity to compete this year and help us defend this Stanley Cup championship as we're chasing another one."
Kucherov, the 2019 Hart Trophy winner and NHL MVP, has produced 398 points over the last four seasons, which trails only Edmonton superstar Connor McDavid for the league lead.
The Lightning were able to place the 27-year-old Russian sniper and his $9.5 million cap hit on long-term injured reserve.
That move and a few other transactions allowed the team to remain under the salary cap.
With the financial break of LTIR, BriseBois re-signed Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Mathieu Joseph, Alexander Volkov and Anthony Cirelli.
He also traded Braydon Coburn and Cedric Paquette to Ottawa, and free agents Carter Verhaeghe (Florida), Zach Bogosian (Toronto) and Kevin Shattenkirk (Anaheim) found new teams.
The Blackhawks surprised in the postseason despite being the 12th seed by shocking the Edmonton Oilers in four games in the qualifying round before falling to top-seeded Vegas in five in the quarterfinals.
But Chicago will start the season without team captain Jonathan Toews, who is out indefinitely with an unidentified medical issue that he said leaves him "drained and lethargic."
"We're supporting him however we can," said coach Jeremy Colliton, who received a two-year contract extension Tuesday. "As far as when he's coming back and all those things, it doesn't really matter. ... When he comes back is not the top priority."
Promising 19-year-old forward Kirby Dach -- who tallied eight goals and 15 assists in 64 games last year -- will also be absent four to five months after breaking his wrist last month while playing for Team Canada in a world junior championships exhibition.
The club saw the departure of forwards Brandon Saad and Drake Caggiula along with defensemen Olli Maatta, Dennis Gilbert and Slater Koekkoek.
Also, two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie Corey Crawford retired last week after signing with New Jersey in the offseason.
New Blackhawks include forwards Mattias Janmark, Lucas Wallmark and Brandon Pirri, and defensemen Nikita Zadorov and Anton Lindholm.
In goal, backstops Malcolm Subban (66 NHL appearances) and Collin Delia (18) will likely be Chicago's regular tandem.
--Field Level Media