As the dark clouds of the COVID-19 pandemic still loom over North America, there is a break in the storm as the NHL has announced this week the “Return to Play” protocols to get teams back out on the ice this summer and award the Stanley Cup to a deserving team.
Hockey purists, close your eyes and just go with this new plan- it’s the best hope to finish out a disastrous season and bring some normalcy back to the sports world.
The top 24 NHL teams based on point percentages as of March 12th will be advancing to the NHL season finale tournament this summer. When will this tournament actually happen? The latest guess is the NHL will be able to coordinate some sort of tournament by possibly late July or early August. Within the next two weeks, teams will be able to begin voluntary workouts, primarily off the ice (hit the weight room, gentlemen) and by the early part of July, teams in the tournament will be able to begin having an organized training camp in preparation for tournament play.
The top four teams from both the Eastern and Western Conferences have earned a first round tournament bye and will play the winners of the first round. The NHL has announced that there will be two “hub” cities where each conference will play their tournament rounds through the Stanley Cup finals. The mentioned cities include: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh and Toronto. Each tournament team will be limited to 50 personnel altogether including players, coaches and team staff members. All personnel will be sequestered in a specific floor of a hotel and remain there until each team advances or is elminated from the tournament.
Health guidelines and current restrictions based on location will be strictly adhered to by the NHL and this tournment will need the blessings of local, state and national health care authorities in order for the NHL to make this tournament a reality. Actual starting dates are still in the working stages due to major health concerns on the part of the NHL and health care authorities in both the United States and Canada.
NHL teams involved in the tournament include the top seeded Eastern Conference teams: Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. These teams will play each other in a seeding round.
The initial round for the Eastern Conference will be a best of five series and include the following teams.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens; Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Rangers; New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers; Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Western Conference seeding round will have the St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars waiting to play the winners of the following first-round best of five series.
Edmonton Oilers vs. Chicago Blackhawks; Nashville Predators vs. Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild; Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets.
Once these rounds have been completed, the Stanley Cup finals will still be a traditional best of seven series and tentatively be played still using the two hub cities. Fans need to still understand, however, that this “Return to Play” is merely a blueprint plan and nothing can start until all regulatory authorities in both countries are in agreement with the NHL and the NHLPA.
There is still a large amount of assumptions and pure speculation at this point in the sports world on how, when and where the NHL will pull off this tournament.
The silver lining for Islanders fans lies in the fact that the Isles somehow and somewhere will get to play in this post-season tournament and have a chance to bring home the Stanley Cup early this fall.
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