The Montreal Canadiens are in the playoffs.
Now that we have that improbable bit of news out of the way, the only questions are if, when and where the National Hockey League will proceed with its plans for a 24-team tournament to determine the Stanley Cup winner.
The plan was given the green light Friday evening when the National Hockey League Players Association issued the following statement:
“The executive board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.”
The NHL Board of Governors approved the 24-team format earlier in the week, but there have been few details about the format or the location for the games, which will be played in empty arenas to be determined later.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said eight or nine sites are under consideration. Edmonton and Buffalo are probably near the top of the list because they offer hotels connected to the rinks. Buffalo has the added advantage of a practice rink located in the hotel complex. Both cities have been relatively untouched by the coronavirus.
What we do know about the format is the top four teams in each conference will get a bye and the other eight teams will meet in the first rounds. Boston, Tampa, Washington and Philadelphia get the passes in the East and the Canadiens, the last team to qualify for the expanded format, would face the Pittsburgh Penguins.
On paper, this a mismatch. The Penguins overcame a series of injuries to key personnel to post the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference while the Canadiens were dead in the water when the NHL suspended play on March 12 . The team was on a three-game losing streak and was 10 points out of a wild-card spot.
But the series between the teams suggest this could be a competitive matchup and, if the first round is a best-of-three series, a hot Carey Price could tip the scales in Montreal’s favour. Pittsburgh won two of the three games in the regular season, but one of those Penguins’ wins came in overtime.
The timing of the playoffs will benefit both teams. The NHL must wait for travel restrictions to ease and, after going through a quarantine period and a three-week training camp, the earliest starting date for the playoffs would be late July or early August.
The season was halted with Victor Mete and Tomas Tatar on the injured reserve list and both should be available. But there are other players who will benefit from the four-month break. Phillip Danault , Jonathan Drouin , Brendan Gallagher and Shea Weber were all nursing aches and pains, while Price was no doubt dealing with fatigue after starting an NHL-high 58 games.
Still to be determined is the availability of defenceman Alexander Romanov , who signed at the conclusion of the KHL season.
The Penguins should benefit from the return of Jake Guentzel, who had 20 goals and 23 assists in 39 games before suffering a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Other first-round matchups in the East will be the Rangers against Carolina, the Islanders against Florida and Toronto against Columbus.
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