For the first time in close to a year, the Bruins will take to the ice in a stadium with fans in the stands — as the Rangers will welcome in roughly 2,000 fans to Madison Square Garden for Friday and Sunday's matchups against Boston as New York begins to loosen COVID restrictions due to falling numbers of cases and hospitalizations.
These two games will mark the first time that the B's will play in a semi-filled barn since March 10, 2020 — their final regular-season game last year before the 2019-20 campaign was halted.
Even if it represents only a small number of the total amount of fans that can pack into MSG, the Bruins will certainly welcome the jeers of Blueshirt fans over the drone of artificial noise pumped through the speakers.
"I think it'll definitely beat those printouts that the Islanders have their stands," Connor Clifton said of the environment at MSG when compared to Nassau Coliseum, which won't welcome in fans until later in March.
But thankfully for the B's, these games in New York will not be a brief luxury in a season otherwise spent playing in cavernous arenas — as it won't be very long until the Bruins are also graced with the cheers (and jeers) raining down from the stands within the friendly confines of TD Garden.
Speaking on Thursday afternoon, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a new plan that would open the door for limited attendance at large venues — with arenas such as TD Garden, Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium opening up to 12% capacity, starting on March 22.
The Bruins will be the first Boston sports team to welcome back fans into games in over a year, with Boston's home matchup against the Islanders on March 23 the first contest on the docket to welcome in that 12% allotment (roughly 2,100 fans).
"On behalf of TD Garden, the Boston Bruins and the Boston Celtics, we want to thank the Governor Baker and Lt. Governor Polito administration and city officials for working with us on a comprehensive plan to safely and gradually reopen TD Garden to fans," TD Garden said in a statement. "The health and safety of our guests is paramount. We cannot wait to welcome back our passionate fans beginning March 22, 2021 at 12% capacity."
As cases continue to drop along the Commonwealth — coupled with improved rollout of vaccines — re-opening sports venues was expected, especially with the Red Sox set to return to Fenway Park in April.
Speaking earlier this month, Jake DeBrusk was candid when discussing just how much the Bruins had missed playing in front of a packed crowd on Causeway Street.
“It would mean everything,” DeBrusk said of fans eventually returning. "I think that we all could agree on that. I think that’s obviously exciting. It’s one of those things where with COVID and everything going on and other teams dealing with it already and things — it’s kind of hard to get hopeful for things like that. But it’s one of those things that — I didn’t understand how much the crowd, even on the road … really kind of gets you going and kind of gets into the game. It’s something that I think we all had to adjust to in the bubble as early as last year. But even still, it’s one of those things where you have to really prepare yourself to play.
“They have crowd noise now, which is a little bit nice, but there’s nothing better than hearing the TD Garden going when you score a goal. I missed that. I would love that. Obviously, hopefully there’s protocols and things for the fans to be safe in there. That’s obviously the biggest concern and then from there, just be as loud as you can — you watch on TV, the NFL and different stadiums, especially in the playoffs, there are fans and it felt weird to see — it’s one of those things where times are crazy, but I would love it. I miss it so much.”
Speaking following practice on Thursday morning, Bruce Cassidy noted that if the procedures were safe, fans being back in the stands was a positive development for both his team and the NHL as a whole — especially if capacity for venues continues to be raised as cases as more cases drop.
"I would like it to happen all over, if possible," Cassidy said. "If it's safe, and people deem it safe and healthy, let's do it everywhere and then build it up, because I assume that's how they're gonna have to do it. They're not just going to go 1,800. And then two weeks later go 18,000. I would assume that they would sort of bump it up if they look at it in a week or two, or whatever the timeline is and say, 'Yep, we can do it. We can pull it off. People are getting in and out of here. They're healthy. The virus is contained' or whatever the data they're looking at.'
Granted, even though the Bruins (11-3-2) have fared well playing in front of empty stands this season, Clifton and the B's will relish the environment that awaits them against a hostile crowd on Friday — with the promise of a buzzing TD Garden offering the first semblance of good news for many in a long, long time.
"There's just no atmosphere, right? You create your own energy, and I think we've done a really good job with it," Clifton said. "We're all excited to get back to that. But obviously it is what it is — getting hit by a global pandemic. So hopefully we can just look forward to tonight and then getting fans back in the building tomorrow."