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Breaking down each first-round matchup ahead of the NHL's planned return to play

Igor Shesterkin #31 of the Rangers looks on

Igor Shesterkin #31 of the Rangers looks on during the second period against the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, March 7, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Let’s think positive here. Let’s cast aside any skepticism and doubt. Let’s try to think that, for once since the COVID-19 pandemic changed our day-to-day expectations and perception of normalcy, things will work out.

Let’s fast forward about a month and presume there will be NHL games to watch, to analyze, to speculate about.

Let’s try to remember what it’s like to think about hockey, just hockey.

The NHL’s return-to-play format includes 12 teams from each conference, with the top four teams in both the East and the West playing a round-robin series to determine their seeding. There will also be eight best-of-five qualifying series for berths in the 16-team playoffs, with the Islanders and Rangers participating.

Here’s a look at each qualifying series, with the assumption goaltending and how teams handle being in a quarantined bubble will be the biggest factors.

Also, a caveat. The season series results mean little since the games were all so long ago.

The consolation for the eight teams eliminated from the qualifying series is each will have a 12.5 percent chance to gaining the top pick in the NHL Draft and the right to select Alexis Lafreniere through the league’s wacky draft lottery system.

Eastern Conference

No. 5 Penguins vs. No. 12 Canadiens — The Canadiens were 10 points back of the eighth and final playoff spot when the season was paused on March 12 and the Penguins were challenging for first place in the Metropolitan Division, plus they have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel among other scoring threats. The Canadiens’ Carey Price may still be the best goalie in the NHL and could be a real factor in a short series. A deciding factor? Not likely.

Season series: The Penguins won two of three, one in overtime.

No. 6 Hurricanes vs. No. 11 Rangers — The Rangers could be a real interesting team to watch if Mika Zibanejad can pick up where he left off, if Artemi Panarin continues where he left off, if rookie goalie Igor Shesterkin continues where he left off and with Chris Kreider healthy again after a broken left foot. The Hurricanes get their own boost with defenseman Dougie Hamilton back from a broken fibula. Stopping Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov will be a tough task for the Rangers.

Season series: The Rangers won all four games.

No. 7 Islanders vs. No. 10 Panthers — Neither team was playing well when the season was paused. The Islanders were on an 0-3-4 slide and had lost 11 of 13 but they will benefit greatly from having top-pair defenseman Adam Pelech (Achilles’ tendon) and fourth-line center Casey Cizikas (left leg laceration) healthy. The biggest question for the Panthers will be whether goalie Sergei Bobrovsky can shake off a disappointing regular season and become the Vezina-worthy goalie the Panthers signed for seven years, $70 million. The real fun will be watching coaching masters Joel Quenneville and the Islanders’ Barry Trotz — the two winningest active coaches in the league — match wits.

Season series: The Islanders won all three games, one in a shootout.

No. 8 Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Blue Jackets — John Tortorella did perhaps his finest coaching job keeping the Blue Jackets in the playoff race all season despite a free-agent exodus led by Panarin and Bobrovsky and injuries to key players such as defenseman Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Those three are all back from ankle injuries and there’s a possibility Josh Anderson will be available at some point after shoulder surgery in March. The Maple Leafs carry great expectations with a top-heavy lineup that includes Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. They’ve played better since Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as coach in November.

Season series: The teams split two games in October, with the Blue Jackets winning in overtime.

Western Conference

No. 5 Oilers vs. No. 12 Blackhawks — The Oilers are incredibly dangerous with the two-headed scoring machine of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, both potential Hart Trophy candidates as the league MVP. Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen have split the goaltending duties but one will likely have to step up. The Blackhawks still have the remnants of their three Stanley Cup winners with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and goalie Corey Crawford and may get ex-Islander defenseman Calvin de Haan back after shoulder surgery six months ago. But experience is not likely to be enough against the potent Oilers.

Season series: The Blackhawks won two of three.

No. 6 Predators vs. No. 11 Coyotes — A bittersweet series for Devils’ fans as that team’s former coach John Hynes, hired by the Predators on Jan. 7 just over a month after being fired by New Jersey, faces Taylor Hall, his former Hart Trophy winner traded to the Coyotes on Dec. 17. Both are trying to reach the playoffs for just the second time in their NHL careers.

Season series: The teams split two games.

No. 7 Canucks vs. No. 10 Wild — Youth against a veteran squad. The Canucks have defenseman Quinn Hughes, a strong candidate for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year, along with young forwards Elias Pettersson, who won the Calder in 2019, and Brock Boeser. Ex-Ranger J.T. Miller, at 27, has become a veteran leader. The Wild’s over-30 crowd includes defenseman Ryan Suter, Eric Staal, Zach Parise, ex-Ranger Mats Zuccarello and goalies Alex Stalock and Devan Dubnyk.

Season series: The Wild won two of three games, one in a shootout.

No. 8 Flames vs. No. 9 Jets – The lone, all-Canadian series features two teams that were both playing very well when the season was paused. The Jets were on a 7-2-1 streak while the Flames were 6-3-1 with both teams winning all four games they played in March. The series will likely come down to how Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, a likely Vezina candidate, fares against the Flames’ balanced offense, featuring Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.

Season series: The teams played once, outdoors in Regina, Saskatchewan on Oct. 26, with the Jets winning in overtime.

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