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NHL finalizes terms of return-to-play scenario

Goals used by the Nashville Predators are stored

Goals used by the Nashville Predators are stored in a hallway in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., on March 12. Credit: AP/Mark Humphrey

There’s now a timeline and a finalized format for the NHL’s return-to-play plans, even as another positive COVID-19 test was revealed for an unnamed player on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The NHL announced Thursday night that Phase 2 reopening of team facilities for small-group workouts – a maximum of six players without coaches – can begin on Monday.

Earlier Thursday, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced a revamped, 16-team playoff format, agreeing to the final details of the plan first revealed on May 26.

The key change will be the conferences reseeding for each round during the playoffs instead of sticking to the rigid bracket format that has been in place since 2014. All four playoff rounds will remain best-of-seven series.

The season was paused on March 12 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Phase 3 start of formal training camps, which could last three weeks, will not happen before July 10. Phase 4 would be the resumption of play.

Just because the NHL OK’d Phase 2 for Monday does not mean all 31 team facilities will open immediately, as final health protocols are put in place. The Islanders said they would have an update this weekend on their facility in East Meadow. The Rangers will open their facility in Greenburgh as soon as possible within league guidelines.

The seventh-seeded Islanders will face the 10th-seeded Florida Panthers in the qualifying series while the No. 11 Rangers will face the sixth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes.

Under the return-to-play format, two hub cities would be selected to each host a conference and the teams and its personnel would be sequestered there until their seasons finished.

Each team would be permitted to bring a traveling party of 50, including players, coaches, trainers and other support staff. Regular coronavirus testing would be conducted and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman estimated 25,000 to 30,000 tests would ultimately be administered.

There have now been nine NHL players known to have tested positive for COVID-19 but Thursday was the first in nearly two months. Previously, five Ottawa Senators players and three from the Colorado Avalanche had tested positive.

“The player is not in Pittsburgh and has been in isolation at his home since first experiencing symptoms,” the Penguins said in a statement. “He is recovered and feeling well.”

The NHL also announced on Thursday that any ties in the round-robin games among each conference’s top four seeds – played concurrently with the qualifying series – will be broken by regular-season points percentage.

The higher seed will be designated the home team – and have the last on-ice change – for Games 1, 2 and 5 in the qualifying series and Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 in the playoff series.

In the Stanley Cup Final, the team with the higher regular-season points percentage will be designated the home team for Games 1, 2, 5 and 7.

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