PITTSBURGH - We are going to attempt to talk about hockey today, with a disclaimer that there are more important things to worry about in our world than whether or not Gary Bettman hands somebody the Stanley Cup this spring or summer.
Another disclaimer: There is a legit chance that isn't going to happen.
Based on the latest recommendation from the Center for Disease Control, that all events with 50 or more people be canceled for the next eight weeks, the NHL has said the best-case scenario for players even being permitted to practice is around May 1. Again, that's a best-case scenario. It's probably unrealistic.
The story of this pandemic is evolving every day, the news seemingly bleaker each time. So let's indulge the NHL and consider what the playoffs may look like.
Heck, it will give us something else to think about while we stand at least six feet apart in line waiting to get our hands on some pinot grigio before it's gone.
Bettman, the NHL commissioner, has made the media rounds in recent days to answer questions about the direction of the league. Understandably, he doesn't want to guess on the record about what the future may hold because he knows the circumstances we face could be much different a week from now.
Remember, a week ago the Penguins played what could be their last game of the season, in a fairly crowded arena in New Jersey. Players got their first glimpse at the league's new media access policy in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, expecting that to be the new normal for the playoff push.
But the NHL, for now, is keeping the doors open for its Zambonis, hoping the U.S. and Canada have done and will continue to do enough to allow sports leagues to resume operations, even if games must be played in empty arenas.
Bettman, in an interview with TSN, estimated that for an NHL game to take place, between 200 and 300 people must be on hand. That includes coaches, officials, training staff, doctors, maintenance workers, etc. It's not just 40 players.
Plus, for financial reasons, the NHL really doesn't want to have to play any games without paying ticket-holders in the barn to buy nachos, an I.C. Light and a Jack Johnson jersey. But the league knows it might have no other choice.
Money will be one of the main considerations if the NHL gets a chance to salvage this season, perhaps behind only the health of the public and NHL family.
Another major factor will be time. Let's say the league gets the green light from health experts and government officials three months from now, in the middle of June. That wouldn't give the NHL enough time to squeeze in the current playoff format, especially when you consider the need for arena availability.
Bettman has also said he hopes to have a normal 2020-21 season, which would put a bookend on how far out the league is willing to push a potential 2019-20 postseason. Talking to TSN, he mentioned going into July, maybe August.
That would force the NHL to get creative as it looks to determine a Stanley Cup champion while also trying to recoup as many lost millions as possible.
There has been speculation the league could expand the playoff field to 20 or 24 teams, essentially creating a play-in tourney to get into the regular field.
Look, hypothetically speaking, if your favorite team has a .500 points percentage, you shouldn't cry foul - especially given the backdrop of this pandemic - if the rest of the regular season is called off and your squad doesn't make the playoff field. From a fairness standpoint, mediocre teams are owed nothing.
But from a financial standpoint, it probably wouldn't be a bad thing if places such as New York, Chicago, Montreal and Minnesota made it into the field.
That's why a 24-team playoff format that Sportsnet's Chris Johnson wrote about, or something similar, could be appealing to Bettman and NHL owners.
Under that proposed format, the Penguins, who are third in the Metropolitan Division behind the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers, would just miss out on a first-round bye. They would start with a best-of-three series against the Montreal Canadiens, the last Eastern team above the playoff cut.
From there, given time and scheduling constraints, additional playoff rounds may need to be only three or five games. Maybe it's best-of-five for the conference finals and then we get back to best-of-seven for the Stanley Cup final.
If and when the league gets the green light to resume will obviously have a major impact on what the playoff format will look like. And that's not even mentioning where they will be played - maybe even in empty practice facilities.
As Bettman has stressed in interviews, a lot of ideas will be put on the table.
But Bettman also made it clear that, if the NHL ever gets to the point where the season is back on, he wants to ensure the "integrity" of the game is intact.
"The most important thing will be that when we come back," the commissioner told TSN on Monday, "the tournament or the competition we put on (will have) integrity and (do) justice to the history and tradition of the Stanley Cup."
At this point, most hockey fans will probably take what they can get, even if the NHL playoffs are a hybrid of dizzy-bat races and 18-skater shootouts.
That would mean hockey was back and we had this pandemic under wraps.
Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at www.post-gazette.com