MONTREAL - The NHL's Return to Play format features 24 teams, including your Canadiens.
One of 12 Eastern Conference clubs to officially earn a spot based on points percentage when the League went on pause in mid-March, Claude Julien's contingent will battle the Pittsburgh Penguins in a best-of-five qualifying round series to advance to the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Canadiens-Penguins matchup was among the four Eastern Conference qualifying round series revealed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday afternoon.
The Carolina Hurricanes will square off against the New York Rangers, the New York Islanders have drawn the Florida Panthers, while the Toronto Maple Leafs will battle the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The winners of those series will play one of the four Eastern Conference squads that already earned automatic playoff bids - Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, or Philadelphia - by virtue of being one of the top four teams in the conference when the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the 2019-20 campaign.
When and where the Canadiens will meet the Penguins to begin their series, however, is still up in the air.
Given the fluid nature of the public health crisis, Bettman wasn't prepared to share any specific timelines at the moment.
"The health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff, and our communities are paramount. While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so," stated Bettman. "Although we are anxious to get back on the ice, we will not do anything until we are assured by medical professionals and the relevant government authorities that it is safe and prudent to do so."
Location-wise, the Canadiens will be heading to one of 10 possible "hub cities" still being considered to host teams down the road. One city will eventually be chosen for each conference. The sites under consideration include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Vancouver.
But a lot still has to happen before the Canadiens can pack up their gear and make their way to one of those towns because the NHL remains in Phase 1 of their pause with an emphasis on self-isolation.
"In early June, we expect to be able to enter Phase 2 during which clubs can return to their individual practice facilities for voluntary and small-group on and off-ice training," explained Bettman. "Phase 3 will be the opening of formal training camps. The timing of our entry into Phase 3 will be determined by guidance from medical and civil authorities. While we are anxious to open camps as soon as possible, we don't envision doing so before the first half of July. When appropriate, we will move to Phase 4 in which our participating clubs will report to their respective hub cities and we will resume play. Obviously, we anticipate playing over the summer and into the early fall. At this time, we are not fixing dates because the schedule of our return to play will be determined both by developing circumstances and the needs of our players."
What does the Return to Play format involve?
The top four teams in each conference who've claimed automatic berths in the first round of the playoffs will play an intra-conference round robin to determine their respective seeds in the first round of the playoffs.
Bettman indicated that these games will be played with regular season overtime and shootout rules, with ties in the final standings being broken by regular season points percentage.
With respect to qualifying round series, however, playoff overtime rules will apply.
Bettman also provided some additional information regarding the playoff series themselves.
"The matchups for the first round series remain to be set as the Return to Play Committee is still discussing whether to determine them through seeding or via a bracket. In addition, the Return to Play Committee is still discussing the lengths of the first and second round series, and whether the second-round matchups will be determined through seeding or via bracket," explained Bettman. "In any scenario, the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven."
The NHL's full Return to Play plan, including Draft Lottery scenarios, can be found HERE.