Qualifying Round to include four best-of-5 matchups to determine who will face bye teamsby Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer
The NHL announced its Return to Play Plan on Tuesday.
The League, which has been paused since March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, will restart with the Stanley Cup Playoffs in two hub cities each hosting 12 teams from one conference.
The top four teams in the Eastern or Western Conference will play each other once (three games per team) in a round-robin to decide the top four seeds for the first round of the playoffs. These games will be played with regular-season overtime and shootout rules, with ties in the final standings broken by regular-season points percentage. The four teams from the Eastern Conference are the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers.
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The other eight Eastern teams, seeded by point percentage, will play in four best-of-5 series in the Qualifying Round, with the winners advancing to play against the top four seeds. These games will be played with playoff overtime rules.
Here are those best-of-5 series matchups and breakdowns:
(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal CanadiensRegular-season records
Penguins: 40-23-6, 86 points (.623 point percentage)
Canadiens: 31-31-9, 71 points (.500)
Dec. 10: Canadiens 4, Penguins 1, at PIT
Jan. 4: Penguins 3, Canadiens 2 (OT), at MTL
Feb. 14: Penguins 4, Canadiens 1, at PIT
Penguins: Forward Jake Guentzel is expected to be in the lineup after recovering from shoulder surgery he had Dec. 31 that was supposed to keep him out 4-6 months. He led the Penguins with 20 goals and 43 points when he was injured against the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 30.
Canadiens: Defenseman Victor Mete (broken foot) and forwards Jonathan Drouin (ankle) and Tomas Tatar (upper body) all likely will be in the lineup. Each was out with an injury when the NHL paused the season.
The Penguins should have a healthy and deep lineup, making them the clear favorite, but the biggest decision will come down to who starts in goal, Matt Murray (20-11-5, 2.87 goals-against average, .899 save percentage) or Tristan Jarry (20-12-1, 2.43 GAA, .921 save percentage)? If the Canadiens are going to pull off the upset, it will likely be goalie Carey Price (27-25-6, 2.79 GAA, .909 save percentage) leading the way. He is widely respected for his ability to get in the heads of his opponents and steal games.
(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers
Hurricanes: 38-25-5, 81 points (.596)
Rangers: 37-28-5, 79 points (.564)
New York 4-0-0
Nov. 7: Rangers 4, Hurricanes 2, at CAR
Nov. 27: Rangers 3, Hurricanes 2, at NYR
Dec. 27: Rangers 5, Hurricanes 3, at NYR
Feb. 21: Rangers 5, Hurricanes 2, at CAR
Hurricanes: Goalie James Reimer and defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Sami Vatanen should be available. Hamilton hasn't played since Jan. 16 because of a fractured left fibula. He was fourth among NHL defensemen with 40 points (14 goals, 26 assists) when he sustained the injury. Vatanen, who had a lower-body injury when the Hurricanes acquired him from the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 24, hasn't played yet for Carolina. Reimer has been out since Feb. 22 with a lower-body injury.
Rangers: Forward Chris Kreider (fractured foot) will be available. Kreider, who missed the last six games before the season was paused, had 45 points (24 goals, 21 assists) in 63 games.
This looks like a lopsided matchup with the Rangers 31-6-0 against the Hurricanes since Feb. 22, 2011. However, Carolina is stronger at defenseman than it was going into the pause with Hamilton and Vatanen expected back, and Brady Skjei in the mix after being acquired in a trade from the Rangers on Feb. 24. Each team will have a decision to make for starting goalie (Igor Shesterkin, Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist for New York; Petr Mrazek or Reimer for Carolina).
(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida PanthersRegular-season record
Islanders: 35-23-10, 80 points (.588)
Panthers: 35-26-8, 78 points (.565)
New York 3-0-0
Oct. 12: Islanders 3, Panthers 2 (SO), at NYI
Nov. 9: Islanders 2, Panthers 1, at NYI
Dec. 12: Islanders 3, Panthers 1, at FLA
Islanders: Center Casey Cizikas and defenseman Johnny Boychuk will be healthy when play resumes. Cizikas missed the last 13 games before the season was paused with a lacerated leg, and Boychuk missed the last three because of a facial injury.
Panthers: Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky will be available after missing the last four games before the pause because of a lower-body injury. Forward Brian Boyle, who missed the last 19 games with an upper-body injury, also is expected to be ready.
There's an argument to be made that the Islanders and Panthers each underachieved this season, but this five-game series presents an opportunity to change opinions. The Islanders will be deeper down the middle with the return of Cizikas. The difference could be Bobrovsky, who has been disappointing in the first of his seven-year contract with the Panthers (23-19-6, 3.23 GAA, .900 save percentage). This series represents a chance for him to turn around his season.
(8) Toronto Maple Leafs (9) Columbus Blue JacketsRegular-season records
Maple Leafs: 36-25-9, 81 points (.579)
Blue Jackets: 33-22-15, 81 points (.579)
Oct. 4: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 1, at CBJ
Oct. 21: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT), at TOR
Maple Leafs: Defenseman Jake Muzzin (broken hand) and forwards Andreas Johnsson (knee) and Ilya Mikheyev (wrist laceration) all likely will be in the lineup. Muzzin missed the last six games before the season was paused, Johnsson the last 12, and Mikheyev the last 31.
Blue Jackets: Defenseman Seth Jones and forward Oliver Bjorkstrand each will be in the lineup after fracturing his ankle in February. The Blue Jackets were 3-5-6 without Jones and 3-3-2 without Bjorkstrand. Defenseman Dean Kukan (knee) and forwards Cam Atkinson (ankle), Alexandre Texier (back), and Nathan Gerbe (groin) likely will be ready to return as well.
The Blue Jackets are a different team with Jones in the lineup. He's their top defenseman who plays in all situations and partners with Zach Werenski for one of the most formidable defense pairs in the NHL. The Maple Leafs counter by getting Muzzin back. He's the most experienced defenseman and one of two Stanley Cup champions in the series (Toronto forward Kyle Clifford). This series is a tale of differing styles. Columbus was tied for third in the NHL in goals-against per game (2.61); Toronto was third in goals per game (3.39).