I've been watching some of the exhibition games (TBL/FLA, CAR/WSH last night; NYI/NYR as I'm writing this), and I'm pretty optimistic about how this will unfold. It's different, though I think most people will be able to adjust pretty quickly. The lack of spectators feels strange at first, but once the play picks up it doesn't seem to be distracting. It actually reminds me of some of the outdoor games in big stadiums, where the fans were far enough removed to not be on camera during gameplay. All of the games I've seen have some level of artificial crowd noise, which I think is effective. They haven't been able replicate the spontaneous swells on breakaways, or the big OOOH's after a big save, which is probably what I miss the most. I imagine they'll continue to tweak the presentation as it goes on, but I think it's already very good, considering the circumstances; very watchable. If anything, I think it's easier to focus on the action.
The best sign is that the intensity is there. Not quite playoff level yet, but a solid, late season, every game counts feel. Most teams have looked pretty sharp after the first few minutes. TB definitely looks ready for the playoffs. Players are obviously hyped to play against real competition again. There's already been a good amount of big hits, blocked shots, and even some fisticuffs. Honestly, apart from the tarps over the seats and lack of real crowd noise, there doesn't seem to be anything missing. I was more than a bit concerned that what we would get wouldn't resemble real life hockey, but I've been pleasantly surprised. I'm guessing the lack of true crowd emotion will be more noticeable when we get to series cinching games, but for now it's scratching the itch. Hopefully we'll see the replenished Jackets come out strong for a long run, and everyone involved acts responsibly to avoid any outbreaks within the bubbles. It ain't like it used to be, but it still beats the hell out of anything else on tv right now.