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NHL restart: A playoff preview

John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs and

John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Phillip Danault of the Montreal Canadiens face off to start an exhibition game prior to the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on July 28, 2020 in Toronto. Credit: Getty Images/Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo

Bubble hockey that counts is finally here for the NHL.

The league paused its season on March 12 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic but, four-and-a-half months later, will restart games on Saturday and hope that playing in quarantined hub city arena/practice rink/hotel bubbles will allow a Stanley Cup champion to be crowned by the first week of October.

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host the Western Conference's  round-robin among the top four seeds and best-of-five qualifying series among the next eight seeds and the conference’s first two rounds of the playoffs. Scotiabank Arena in Toronto will host the Eastern Conference’s round-robin and qualifying series and first two rounds of the playoffs. Edmonton also will host both conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final.

Here’s what to expect:

Eastern Conference

Round-robin: Bruins, Lightning, Capitals, Flyers

The Lightning, on a short list of Cup favorites, were one of two teams (along with the Hurricanes) to vote against the NHL’s restart plan when it was announced, thinking the round-robin games would be little more than exhibitions.

But there is something at stake for the top four teams. Since the league will be re-seeding after each playoff round, the highest remaining seed always will play the lowest remaining seed in each round. And that means the No. 1 seed should — on paper, at least — have the easiest path to the conference finals.

The Bruins, the 2019 Stanley Cup runner-up, had the best record in the league (44-14-12) during the regular season but were pretty average against the rest of the top four in the East (3-3-4). The Bruins’ Tuukka Rask and the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy are finalists for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie. The Bruins’ David Pastrnak, whose 48 goals tied for the league lead with the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, may have a gripe that he was not among the finalists for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. The Capitals won the Cup in 2018 and the Flyers finally may have the right coach (Alain Vigneault) and right goalie (Carter Hart) in place at the same time.

The qualifying series

No. 5 Penguins vs. No. 12 Canadiens: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the aging Penguins get the matchup no one wanted — Canadiens goalie Carey Price.

No. 6 Hurricanes vs. No. 11 Rangers: The Rangers swept the season series, 4-0, but who will start in goal, rookie Igor Shesterkin or Hurricanes-killer Henrik Lundqvist?

No. 7 Islanders vs. No. 10 Panthers: With the return of injured defenseman Adam Pelech and center Casey Cizikas, did the long pause work to the Isles’ advantage? 

No. 8 Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Blue Jackets: Even with no fans in the stands, will home ice be an advantage for the Maple Leafs? Or will the return of defenseman Seth Jones spark the Blue Jackets?

Western Conference

Round-robin: Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights, Stars

The Blues are the defending Cup champions and will be further buoyed in their attempt at becoming the first repeat champions since the Penguins in 2016-17 by the return of potent scorer and skater Vladimir Tarasenko, who is back following surgery on his left shoulder.

But there’s no guarantee they’ll secure the top seed in the West.

The Avalanche have Hart Trophy nominee Nathan MacKinnon and Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) favorite Cale Makar. Vegas made it to the Cup Final as an expansion team in 2018 and added goalie Robin Lehner at the trade deadline. The former Islander could supplant Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury (while with the Penguins) in the Golden Knights’ net.

Both the Golden Knights, going from Gerard Gallant to Pete DeBoer, and the Stars, who replaced Jim Montgomery with Rick Bowness, switched coaches mid-season. But that worked well for the Blues and Craig Berube last season.

The qualifying series

No. 5 Oilers vs. No. 12 Blackhawks: The Oilers have a Hart Trophy candidate in Leon Draisaitl (110 points) and perhaps the best player in the NHL in Connor McDavid (97 points). The Blackhawks have Patrick Kane (84 points) and remnants of their three Cup winners, plus rookie Dominik Kubalik (30 goals).

No. 6 Predators vs. No. 11 Coyotes: Former Devils coach John Hynes must choose between Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros in the Predators’ net and face the Coyotes’ Taylor Hall, his former Hart Trophy winner in New Jersey. But will the chaos caused by GM John Chayka quitting sink the Coyotes?

No. 7 Canucks vs. No. 10 Wild: The Canucks’ youth, with defenseman Quinn Hughes the team’s third straight Calder Trophy candidate, is pitted against the Wild’s experience (Zach Parise just turned 36).

No. 8 Flames vs. No. 9 Jets: Goalie Connor Hellebuyck is a Vezina Trophy candidate and gives the Jets a huge advantage in the series. But the Flames may be deeper both with their forwards and defensemen.

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