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Return to Play: Eastern Conference

Stanley Cup Qualifiers to include four best-of-5 matchups to determine who will face bye teams

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

NHL Tonight: Eastern Playoffs

The crew cover the Eastern Conference matchups

The NHL Tonight crew break down the Eastern Conference playoff matchups

  • 12:35 •

The NHL announced its Return to Play Plan on May 26.

The season, which was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, will restart with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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 Stanley Cup 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.

 

[RELATED: Return to Play: Western Conference | 2020 NHL Draft Lottery procedure]

 

The other eight Eastern teams, seeded by points percentage, will play in four best-of-5 series in the qualifiers, 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 Canadiens

Regular-season records

Penguins: 40-23-6, 86 points (.623 points percentage)
Canadiens: 31-31-9, 71 points (.500)

Head-to-head

Pittsburgh 2-1-0

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

What's changed

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: Forward Jonathan Drouin (ankle) will be in the lineup, and forward Tomas Tatar (upper body) likely will be available. Each was out when the NHL paused the season, as was defenseman Victor Mete (broken foot), who must be examined by Canadiens doctors before he could return after missing the last eight games, general manager Marc Bergevin said.

Analysis

The Penguins should have a healthy and deep lineup, making them the clear favorite, but the biggest decision will come down to who starts at goalie: 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)

Head-to-head

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

What's changed

Hurricanes: Goalie James Reimer and defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Sami Vatanen will 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 was injured. Vatanen, who had a lower-body injury when the Hurricanes acquired him from the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 24, hasn't played for Carolina. Reimer has been out since Feb. 22 with a lower-body injury.

Rangers: Forward Chris Kreider (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.

Analysis

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 with 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 Panthers

Regular-season record

Islanders: 35-23-10, 80 points (.588)
Panthers: 35-26-8, 78 points (.565)

Head-to-head

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

What's changed

Islanders: Center Casey Cizikas and defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Adam Pelech (Achilles tendon) will be healthy when play resumes. Cizikas missed the last 13 games before the season was paused with a lacerated leg. Boychuk missed the last three games because of a facial injury, and Pelech has not played since Dec. 31.

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.

Analysis

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 at center with the return of Cizikas. The difference could be Bobrovsky, who has been disappointing in the first season 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 it around.

 

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs (9) Columbus Blue Jackets

Regular-season records

Maple Leafs: 36-25-9, 81 points (.579)
Blue Jackets: 33-22-15, 81 points (.579)

Head-to-head

Toronto 1-0-1

Oct. 4: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 1, at CBJ
Oct. 21: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT), at TOR

What's changed

Maple Leafs: Defenseman Jake Muzzin (hand) and forward Ilya Mikheyev (wrist) likely will be in the lineup. Muzzin missed the last six games before the season was paused, 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. Defensemen Dean Kukan (knee) and Ryan Murray (undisclosed), and forwards Cam Atkinson (ankle), Alexandre Texier (back), and Nathan Gerbe (groin) likely will be ready to return.

Analysis

The Blue Jackets are a different team with Jones in the lineup. He's their top defenseman who plays in all situations and plays 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, each with the Los Angeles Kings). 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).

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