NHL Playoffs Explained

On May 24th, the NHL announced its “Return to Play Plan” which outlines guidelines pertaining to a new playoff format and draft lottery. Sports-deprived fans across America were excited to hear that playoff hockey will likely be back barring no major coronavirus setbacks. While the NHL coronavirus pause was certainly eventful, it’s nice to hear some good news concerning the hockey world. And while there are still some challenges facing the NHL’s resumption, it’s great to see one of the major North American sports leagues making some progress and planning a return. Hopefully the preparation and planning will encourage other leagues to come out with tentative plans like the NHL has.

Before I go over the formats for the draft and playoffs, I want to mention the NHL’s plans about coronavirus safety. Of course, NHL players who are competing in the playoffs will be constantly tested to make sure any outbreak of the virus is controlled. Alongside this, to limit travel and the spread of the virus, the NHL will be using two hub cities, one for the Eastern Conference and one for the Western Conference. While the two hub cities have not been chosen, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Vancouver are all being considered by the NHL. Reports have suggested that Las Vegas is a front runner alongside Edmonton as both are boasting strong decreases in corona cases. With these safety precautions and hopefully a decrease in the coronavirus throughout the next few weeks, the NHL will determine who the hub cities will be.

The Format:

Normally, the NHL playoffs consist of 16 teams, but this year it will be different. Since the regular season ended early with teams playing around 68 to 71 games out of a normally 82 game season, the NHL decided to make the 2020 playoffs include 24 teams. Since it is uncertain which teams would actually make it into the 16 team playoff, the NHL has to let 24 teams in to be fair.  Alongside this change, teams will be reseeded after each round in an attempt to make the playoff format more fair. But to eliminate teams for the first round of the playoffs, this 24 team playoff has a “play-in round” in which those 24 teams are split into two groups:

The Top 8:

The top eight teams, meaning the top four teams with the highest points per game in each conference will play in a round-robin tournament. This tournament will determine the seedings for the first round of the playoffs. Like regular season games, these games will only have 5 minutes of 3-on-3 overtime and then a shootout if need be. Every team that is in the top 8 is guaranteed to be in the actual playoffs and no eliminations will occur in this round-robin tournament.

Eastern Conference:

  • (1) Boston Bruins
  • (2) Washington Capitals
  • (3) Tampa Bay Lightning
  • (4) Philadelphia Flyers

Western Conference:

  • (1) St. Louis Blues
  • (2) Vegas Golden Knights
  • (3) Colorado Avalanche
  • (4) Dallas Stars

The Other 16:

The other 16 teams will match up against one another based on their points per game in their respective conferences. These series will be best of 5 games and will include 5-on-5 overtime. The playoff matchups are as follows:

Eastern Conference:

  • (5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens
  • (6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers
  • (7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers
  • (8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets

Western Conference:

  • (5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks
  • (6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes
  • (7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild
  • (8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets

Winners and Losers

While the NHL has tried to maintain a level of fairness in their new playoff format, it is impossible to make everything completely fair. Thus, there are certain teams that will benefit from this new format opposed to the normal 16-team format. Alongside this, there will also be teams that suffer from this. Here are a few teams who benefit and suffer from the coronavirus pause and the new format of the playoffs.

Who This Helps:

The Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks:

Canadiens forwards Brendan Gallagher (left) and Ilya Kovalchuk (right)

These teams both benefited from the new format mainly because they stood basically no chance of making the playoffs beforehand. The Montreal Canadiens were barely scraping by despite many pegging them as a playoff team at the beginning of the 2020 season. Prior to the coronavirus pause, the Canadiens had a 0.2% chance of making the playoffs according to ESPN.

Similarly, the Blackhawks had a very small chance of making the 16-team playoffs. But unlike the Canadiens, the Blackhawks weren’t really expected to do much this season, so Hawks fans have to be stoked. The Blackhawks had around a 2.5% chance of making the 16-team playoffs, so this new format has really helped them.

Injured Teams:

Having the coronavirus pause has certainly enabled injured teams to recover some of their hurt players. Injury-plagued teams such as the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Pittsburgh Penguins have been able to recover during this pause, making them stronger for this new playoff format. Key players such as Penguins winger Jake Guentzel or Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones have been able to recover from their respective injuries so if play resumes, they should be back on the ice.

The Dallas Stars:

Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg plays in the 2020 Winter Classic

Somehow the Dallas Stars are one of the top 8 teams that will compete in the round-robin tournament. The Stars play prior to the pause was very much unconvincing as the team was on a 7 game losing streak. Given their downward trajectory, it wouldn’t have been surprised to see them fall in the standings if the regular season had continued. Avoiding a play-in matchup despite their recent poor performance is quite lucky for the Stars.

Any Team in the Top 8:

Though the teams in the top 8 will have to play in the round-robin tournament, the number of games they will have to play opposed to teams in a play-in matchup is, for the most part, lower. Alongside this, teams in the top 8 will have to win 3 fewer games than those in a matchup, giving them an inherent advantage to lower seeded teams. And while these teams did earn this right due to their superior play in the regular season, having this advantage has never occurred in NHL playoff history.

Who This Harms:

The Boston Bruins:

Bruins winger David Pastrnak leads the Bruins in scoring with 95 points (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

While the Bruins have effectively won the President’s Trophy (trophy for the top team in the regular season), we all know how little this means. See the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning, who won the trophy and then were swept by the 8-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs.

After their loss in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Bruins have been dominant throughout the 2020 season, establishing a 6 point lead over the 2nd place Blues and a 9 point lead over the Lightning, the 2nd place team in the Eastern Conference. Yet, this lead could effectively be worthless. The Bruins’s giant lead over their conference basically means nothing as they now have the same chance of gaining the 1st seed as the Lightning, Capitals, and Flyers. This also applies to the St. Louis Blues, but their lead in the Western Conference is much smaller as the Colorado Avalanche are right behind them.

Any Higher Seeded Team:

With the fact that all games will be played in the same hub-city without any fans, the home-field advantage has no effect. Normally, the higher seeded team will play games 1, 2, 5, and 7 at home while the lower seeded team will play games 3, 4, and 6 at home. According to a statistical study from 2006-2012 by Bleacher Report, home ice has given the home team a 60%, 50%, 57.1%, and 71.4% chance to win the series in the 1st round, conference semifinals, conference finals, and finals respectively. Of course there are anomalies, like last year when every single division winner lost to wildcard teams. But in general, home ice advantage is real and not having it will no doubt even the playing field between higher and lower seeds.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Edmonton Oilers:

Penguins forward Sidney Crosby is playing at a 1.15ppg pace

Both of these teams had very successful regular seasons, but much to their dismay, will have to participate in a play-in series. The Penguins will face the Blue Jackets and the Oilers will face the Blackhawks.

The Oilers, led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, were having a bounce-back year after a disappointing 2018-2019 season. Draisaitl and McDavid were the top 2 scorers in the league and combined for 207 points in only 71 games. Draisaitl even won the Art Ross Trophy, awarded to the player with the most points in the regular season. Despite this and the Oilers phenomenal season, they will have to win 3 more games than the previously discussed Dallas Stars to win a Cup.

Even more egregious is the fact the Penguins have to compete in a play-in series. The Pens finished 7th in the league with 86 points in only 69 games. Vegas, who had 86 points in 71 games somehow makes it in ahead of them. Even the Stars, who had 82 points in 69 games, are ahead of the Pens in the playoff format. Given this, the Penguins certainly did not benefit from a 24-team playoff.

Three Matchups to Watch:

Because of the long break that has occurred during the spring, many have forgotten hockey and thus might have trouble determining which playoff matchups are the most exciting. So I thought it would be appropriate to point out three matchups to watch when the NHL playoff occurs.

Winnipeg Jets vs. Calgary Flames

Jets winger Patrik Laine was drafted #2 overall in 2017

One thing you’ll notice with this playoff format is that there are a bunch of Canadian teams. In fact, 6 out of 7 of the Canadian teams are in the playoffs with only the Ottawa Senators being excluded. But even Ottawa has everything to be excited about considering they have a 25% chance to snag that 1st overall pick. Given that there are so many Canadian teams in the playoffs this year, I thought I’d choose a completely Canadian matchup to check out.

Calgary and Winnipeg are both teams that are filled with young talent on offense. Winnipeg has Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, two talented wingers who were drafted in the 2017 and 2015 1st rounds. Laine is known for his sniping and goal scoring skills and Connor is a speedster who is able to move the puck through the neutral zone quite well. Alongside these two are the older guys: Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Wheeler is the captain of the team and is one of the best passers in the league. And Scheifele is no slouch himself, putting up 20 points in 17 games in the 17-18 postseason.

Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk fights Oiler Zach Kassian in the Battle of Alberta 1/29/20

The Flames possess two star left wingers: Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. Gaudreau, who’s an undersized high skill player, had 99 points in the 2018-19 season, and has been slumping this year with only 0.83 points per game. As for Tkachuk, he’s the next evolution of power-forward. While not as big as the typical power-forward, Tkachuk is gritty and will dish big hits if need be. But he also is extremely skilled, scoring 61 points in 69 games this year.

In general, I think the Jets’ scoring is superior to the Flames’. Laine was playing great hockey before the pause and Mark Scheifele is a clutch performer and will come through for the Jets when needed most. The one x-factor that could prove a problem is Tkachuk as his playstyle is built for playoff hockey.

As for defense, I think both teams excel in certain areas. The Jets have goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who put up impressive numbers this season. He had a 2.57 goals against average and a .922 save percentage, putting him in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy (awarded to the best goalie in the regular season). But the Jets defense is where things get interesting. The Jets lost 3 of their top 4 defensemen in the offseason. Yet somehow, their depth guys have stepped up and put together a decent defense.

The Flames defense, while very young, will surprise people. Aside from veteran Mark Giordano, the Flames defense is filled with young, talented puck-moving defenseman like Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin, and Oliver Kylington. What makes the Flames defense even better is the help they receive from the forwards. Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund are two of the best defensive forwards in the league.

Even with a mediocre goalie tandem of David Rittich and Cam Talbot, I believe the Flames to be the superior defense. With the Jets high powered offense and the Flames speedy defense, I expect this matchup to be great as play will consist of a lot of breakaways and plays up and down the ice.

Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

While Calgary and Winnipeg are similarly constructed teams that have young forward cores and underrated defenses, Columbus and Toronto are complete opposites.

Columbus is a well-rounded team that really doesn’t possess a star player as both their star winger Artemi Panarin and franchise goalie in Segei Bobrosky left in free agency to the New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers respectively. One might claim their star is their head coach, John Tortorella. Tortorella is known for his hilarious media interactions and no-bs attitude. He led the 8-seeded Blue Jackets to sweep the President’s trophy winning Lightning in the first round last postseason.

As for the Blue Jackets forwards, there is not much to say. Pierre Luc-Dubois is a great all-around center and Cam Atkinson is an incredible goalscorer. Other than those two, the Blue Jackets have mainly depth forwards who lack offensive skill.

Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones is returning from an ankle injury

On the defensive side, the Blue Jackets are much more prepared. Their blueline is held together by Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. Werenski is a great offensive defensemen and will be an awesome asset on the powerplay. But Seth Jones is the lynchpin of this defense. Being great on both sides of the puck, Jones commands a giant presence on the ice and always excels in playoff hockey. And while the Blue Jackets don’t have a #1 goalie anymore, rookie Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo have got the job done this year. Overall, the Blue Jackets are a team that has no real stars, which might actually help them in a similar way to 2017-18 Golden Knights.

Maple Leaf center Auston Matthews taunts Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane in their rivalry in 2018 (Photo by Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports)

As for the Maple Leafs, the opposite can be said. Their team is very much front-loaded with high-powered offensive stars. In fact, just about 50% of their salary cap is spent on just 4 forwards: Auston Matthew, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. And for the most part, the Maple Leafs offense is pretty spectacular with all this talent, being 3rd in the league in goals per game.

But while all of these players are amazing talents, paying this much money to only a few players comes at a cost: the defense. The Leafs have been trying to fix their defense forever, yet to little success. They have acquired Jake Muzzin from the Kings and Tyson Barrie from the Avalanche in the past year or so. Yet, Muzzin has been hampered by injuries and Barrie has yet to click in Toronto. But this is not to say that the Leafs don’t have any good defensive pieces. In particular, Morgan Rielly is a top 10 defenseman in the league and Frederick Anderson is a stellar goalie. But in general, the Leafs have suffered from an anemic defense for years and this year is no exception.

Yet, the one thing in common is that both teams have a lot to prove. Though they swept the Lightning last year, the Blue Jackets have always been a mediocre team that doesn’t do much in the playoffs. By beating the Leafs, the Blue Jackets have a chance to prove that they are not just a flash in the pan. As for the Leafs, they need to win this series as they haven’t made it past the first round in years, much due in part to losing game 7’s to the Bruins (3 times in the 2010s). If they don’t win this series, General Manager Kyle Dubas could be in some hot water due to the extravagant contracts he gave out to his star forwards.

Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Rangers

The last matchup I want to point out is between the Canes and the Rangers. Indeed, these teams are composed completely differently, one for defense and the other for offense.

The Hurricanes are much more of a defensive team, possessing the likes of Brett Pesce and Jacob Slavin. Slavin and Pesce have both been on the team for a while now and have slowly been gaining the recognition they deserve. Both of them were great in the playoffs last year, but it’s important to note that Pesce suffered a shoulder injury and is questionable to return this summer. But the Canes have no shortage of great defensemen to fill his place like Dougie Hamilton, who was playing at a 0.85 ppg pace this season. Or former Ranger Brady Skjei, who is looking to bounce back after some mediocre play. The only question on defense is their goalies, Petr Mrazek and James Reimer. I’d expect Mrazek to be taking most of the starts as Reimer has been a little shaky as of late.

Canes winger Andrei Svechnikov performs the NHL’s first lacrosse-style goal (aka “The Michigan Move”)

While the Canes defense is its main selling point, their offense is by no means terrible. In particular, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Svechnikov are all young studs. And while the Canes lack a little firepower, their forwards are, for the most part, defensibly responsible.

As for the Rangers, they boast a pretty strong forward corp. With the 1-2 combo of Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibenijad, the Rangers are deadly in the opposing team’s zone. Panarin has been on fire, scoring 95 points in only 69 games and Zibanejad is no slouch either, playing at a 1.32 ppg pace.

On defense, the Rangers are a different story. They are 24th in the league in goals against and have an issue with their defensemen. While they did sign Jacob Trouba to a $8 million contract last offseason, he has been a little underwhelming and has only scored 27 points. 

Rangers rookie goalie Igor Shesterkin has replaced veteran Henrik Lundquist

Alongside this, their goaltending situation is quite perplexing. They have 3 goalies: Henrik Lundquist, Alexander Georgiev, and Igor Shesterkin. Lunquist is a Rangers legend, yet hasn’t played that well this year. Shesterkin, who’s a rookie, has effectively replaced Lundquist and taken that #1 role. This puts the Rangers in an awkward position in choosing who to start and has hampered the team’s play as a whole recently.

Overall, this matchup has the recipe for some great hockey, especially since these two teams have been overshadowed by the big guns of the Metro Division in recent years, like the Penguins and Capitals. The question is whether the Canes defense can stop Panarin and Zibanejad. I think this matchup is pretty even, especially if Brett Pesce can return from shoulder surgery at full health. Given this, I expect this series to be filled with exciting drama concerning both teams’ goalie situations.

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