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Return to Play

Stanley Cup Qualifiers mark return of NHL, 'going to be a lot of fun'

Unique postseason to begin in Toronto, Edmonton with first games since March 11

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

And 142 days later, the NHL is back.

The Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin with five games Saturday, starting a nine-day stretch that could feature as many as 52 games, with up to six per day from Monday through Aug. 9, and the elimination of eight of the 24 teams in the NHL Return to Play Plan.

All of it will take place in the confines of two hub cities, Toronto for the 12 Eastern Conference teams and Edmonton for the 12 Western Conference teams, with no fans in the stands, no families living with the players, no travel and no worn-out bodies at the start.

"Playoff hockey on steroids," Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice said. "There's a chance that this is as good of hockey as I've ever seen."


[RELATED: Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]


The top four teams in each conference will play three games each in a round-robin to determine seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The other 16 teams -- eight in each conference -- will play eight best-of-5 series to determine who advances to the playoffs, which begin Aug. 11. The losers of the series will each have a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery, to be held Aug. 10.

All Eastern Conference games in the Qualifiers and first two rounds of the playoffs will be played at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto; all Western Conference games will be played at Rogers Place in Edmonton, which will also host the Eastern Conference Final, Western Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final. It will be the first time in 95 years that the entire NHL postseason will be played in Canada.

"I'm definitely glad we've gotten to this point and we can get started tomorrow," Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, whose team last qualified for the playoffs in 2017, said Friday. "I'm definitely really excited about it. For guys that have been here a long time we've talked about playoffs for a few years and haven't been able to get there, so this is a great opportunity for us."

When the NHL season was paused March 12 because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus, there was no way of knowing if or when it would resume.

Players were permitted to return to and self-quarantine in their home cities and countries March 16. More than two months later, on May 26, the NHL announced the Return to Play Plan that included the framework for the Qualifiers and playoffs.

"We were sitting there in March and April and even most of May just kind of watching the time slip away," New York Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck said. "It started to get nice outside, so you really wonder how a league would be able to pull something off."

The doors to training facilities around the NHL were permitted to open June 8 for voluntary workouts in small groups. The final protocols for the Return to Play Plan and a four-year extension to the NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement were announced July 10.

Video: Highlights from a memorable 2019-20 regular season

Training camps began three days later, and players could finally start believing they'd play again, that the Stanley Cup would be awarded this season.

They arrived in their hub cities on Sunday. Every team played one exhibition game between Tuesday and Thursday.

The Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers, the No. 6 and No. 11 seeds in the Eastern Conference, start things off Saturday (Noon ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, TVAS, FS-CR, MSG).

"What I have thought about is the importance of sports during a difficult time, and how passionate people are around the respective sports and the role that we play in society," Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I also think about the huge undertaking the League has attempted to put together here. After having spent a couple of days now in the in the hub city, in the quote-unquote bubble so to speak, I'm so impressed with the organization and the attention to detail with what the League has gone through to try to keep our players safe and our coaches safe and everyone involved safe, and at the same time allowing the spirit of competition to take place. I think sports plays an important role in our society. And for me this is an important moment for our league, in our game and maybe most importantly our fans."

It's just the beginning, though.

The Stanley Cup might not be awarded until early October. For now, every team is still working off the rust. Exhibition games answered some questions for many teams but created more uncertainty for others.

"It's not normal you're coming off a game (like the one) that we just had, so that certainly got our attention going," said Florida Panthers coach Joel Quenneville, whose team lost 5-0 to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday. "The game was disappointing in every way. I know we've moved on from that and we're excited about the opportunity that is ahead of us. Whether it was a wake-up call, it certainly got our attention."

The Panthers, the No. 10 seed in the East, open their qualifier series against the Islanders, the No. 7 seed, Saturday (4 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN1, TVAS, MSG+, FS-F).

"First shift, it's on and it's going to be a lot of fun," Panthers forward Brett Connolly said. "I think guys are excited. It's wide open and I think guys believe that we can do it."

McDavid said he senses the same from the Oilers, the No. 5 seed in the West. They will play Game 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks, the No. 12 seed, Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN).

"I like everything that the guys have been doing on the ice," the center said. "I like what I'm hearing from everyone off the ice. All indications are that we're ready to go and we get to do that tomorrow."

It's the start of what will be the most unique postseason in NHL history.

"You're not carrying 70, 80 games on you so there's a real enthusiasm for this, for the hockey -- and it's pure hockey, right?" said Maurice, whose Jets are the No. 9 seed in the West and will open their qualifier series against the Calgary Flames, the No. 8 seed, Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV, CBC, SN). "So there's nobody in the stands, we get that. It's certainly an unusual environment, but the puck still drops and everything else is the same after that. The game is the same.

"Now the part that we all look forward to is going to happen, so I think you're going to see -- I'm here to see -- just fantastic hockey."

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