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If the NHL goes directly to playoff hockey in the warmer months, it could leave some contenders out in the cold.
The league may skip most if not all of the final 189 regular-season games that were put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. The format of such an unprecedented tournament is unclear.
Teams had unequal amounts of games remaining when the season was frozen March 12, raising questions about how to determine who gets in. If determined by points percentage, the New York Islanders would be in over Columbus in the East and Vancouver would be in over Winnipeg in the West.
The league could stage play-in games for the final two spots in each conference. Or the league could expand the playoffs from 16 to 24 teams, giving the top four in each conference a bye.
“You can’t eliminate teams who are out on points percentage or stuff like that,” Calgary captain Mark Giordano said. “I think you go 12 and 12. More teams get in this year, maybe a couple of byes at the top and play it out.”
If the league decides to stick with 16 playoff teams seeded by points percentage, the potential matchups:
No. 1 Boston Bruins vs. No. 4 New York Islanders
After reaching Game 7 of the final last season, the Bruins would get the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. There’s no guarantee games can happen in front of fans — in Boston or elsewhere — and captain Zdeno Chara said hockey’s secondary to his team’s success.
“The team (was) playing well and with confidence, and we were at a good pace,” Chara said. “But who knows? We can’t always wish for the perfect situations.”
A first-round series against 2018 Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz and his feisty Islanders would be a nice test for the title favorites.
No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 3 Toronto Maple Leafs
Tampa Bay rebounded from a slow start and had won 14 of 21 games when the season was paused. The talented Lightning would probably have injured captain Steven Stamkos back, too.
The Maple Leafs were similarly banged up, especially on defense. Captain John Tavares said he and his teammates had a special opportunity, which is particularly true given the salary-cap issues that could break up Toronto’s core sooner than later.
Each of these teams got knocked out in the first round last year.
No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 4 Carolina Hurricanes
Capitals star Alex Ovechkin agreed with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby that he wouldn’t mind starting with the playoffs. Teammate Nicklas Backstrom forgot Washington was in first place when the season was suspended and hoped for another championship run like two years ago.
“I like our chances this year,” Backstrom said. “I think we’re a good team and we have been playing pretty good, even though we haven’t been that good lately.”
This would be a rematch of the first round last year, won in seven games by Carolina. The Hurricanes would have injured goaltenders James Reimer and Petr Mrazek back and maybe defenseman Dougie Hamilton, too.
No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 3 Pittsburgh Penguins
Philadelphia was the NHL’s hottest team when hockey went on hiatus, having won nine in a row before a loss to the Bruins. What looked like a late-season surge for a franchise that hasn’t won it all since 1975 might be all for naught.
“As the season progressed, we all got on the same page,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “I think we’ve become a pretty good hockey team.”
A battle of Pennsylvania first-round series would be tantalizing, especially if the Penguins get forward Jake Guentzel back from injury. This would be must-see hockey even in an empty arena given the bad blood between these rivals.
No. 1 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 4 Calgary Flames
The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues were atop the West and looked primed for another deep run, even playing without winger Vladimir Tarasenko since late October. They had won 10 of 12, and captain Alex Pietrangelo said the frustration of the season coming to a halt pales in comparison to the real-life situation.
With a healthy Tarasenko, St. Louis would be a popular pick to repeat.
No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 3 Dallas Stars
Captain Gabriel Landeskog looked past the Avalanche’s injuries and realized they were just two points behind the Blues with a game in hand.
“This has been probably the first time in nine years I’ve been in Denver that we felt really confident about the group that we had and actually feeling like you had a shot at this thing,” Landeskog said.
The road to the Stanley Cup would start with the toughest first-round matchup in the league. Dallas loaded up with playoff veterans Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, so the winner of this hypothetical series could very well lift the Cup.
No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 4 Nashville Predators
Two years removed from a trip to the final in their inaugural season, the Golden Knights might be the best-positioned team to make a deep run after changing coaches. They’re 15-5-2 since Peter DeBoer replaced Gerard Gallant.
Nashville might not have been able to think playoffs if John Hynes hadn’t taken over for Peter Laviolette. Their turnaround under Hynes and a plethora of talent make them a playoff dark horse.
No. 2 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 3 Vancouver Canucks
Edmonton captain Connor McDavid worried that going right into the playoffs could mean a potential matchup against fierce rival Calgary, leading to a ton of injuries.
“I don’t think we can just step into playoffs and, Game 1, Calgary comes to Edmonton and guys just running around killing each other and haven’t played a game in two months,” McDavid said.
Calgary-Edmonton would be a first-round matchup only if the NHL goes by the standings as they froze March 12. On points percentage, Vancouver would make the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
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