After working for months on a return-to-play plan, the NHL will finally resume the 2019-20 season Saturday after pausing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or, more accurately, play will begin anew in the 2019-20 postseason, which features an expanded 24-team tournament.
But the rules of the game are not the same for the 12 teams in each conference. Between Aug. 2-9, the top four teams in both the Eastern and Western Conferences will play three days' worth of round-robin games to determine playoff seeding.
That means, for instance, even though the Boston Bruins sat atop the East (and the league as a whole) with 100 points when play paused March 12, they could end up as the No. 4 seed in the playoffs.
The same is true for the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, who led the West with 94 points (second in the league behind Boston) when play paused.
The other eight teams in each conference will kick off the qualification round on Saturday to determine which will advance to the 16-team first round. These best-of-five series are win-or-go-home. Toronto is the hub city for the Eastern Conference, while Edmonton will host the Western Conference action.
The standings and seedings below reflect where teams stand heading into the qualification round. All teams will be reseeded before the quarterfinals begin.
Eastern Conference Standings
1. Boston Bruins (.714)
2. Tampa Bay Lightning (.657)
3. Washington Capitals (.652)
4. Philadelphia Flyers (.645)
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (.623)
6. Carolina Hurricanes (.596)
7. New York Islanders (.588)
8. Toronto Maple Leafs (.579)
9. Columbus Blue Jackets (.579)
10. Florida Panthers (.565)
11. New York Rangers (.564)
12. Montreal Canadiens (.500)
Western Conference Standings
1. St. Louis Blues (.662)
2. Colorado Avalanche (.657)
3. Vegas Golden Knights (.606)
4. Dallas Stars (.594)
5. Edmonton Oilers (.585)
6. Nashville Predators (.565)
7. Vancouver Canucks (.565)
8. Calgary Flames (.564)
9. Winnipeg Jets (.563)
10. Minnesota Wild (.558)
11. Arizona Coyotes (.529)
12. Chicago Blackhawks (.514)
By Aug. 9, we'll know which four teams will be joining the top four seeds in each conference in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The NHL postseason is difficult to predict in any given year, but in 2020, it's a complete toss-up. There are so many factors that could affect play this postseason, from shaking off rust after months of inactivity to having to quarantine after leaving the bubble or coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 to testing positive for the virus.
In the newest Stanley Cup odds as of Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning (+550) are favored to win it all. Last year's Presidents' Trophy winners surprised everyone, including themselves, when they exited the playoffs in the first round after tying the league record for wins with 62. The team boasted three 40-goal scorers in Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point.
Perhaps a season with slightly lower expectations is what the Lightning need to bring it home. Sure, they're now favored in the odds (a distinction that went to the Bruins earlier in the week), but they don't have the curse of the Presidents' Trophy overshadowing their entry into the postseason. They also, of course, don't have momentum after the 142-day pause, but neither does any other team.
Tampa Bay looked dominant in its exhibition match against the Florida Panthers, blanking them 5-0. Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy was sharp in net, and the team's top line was producing at a late-season level.
But the Lighting face tough competition in the stacked East. They'll begin round-robin play against the Washington Capitals on Monday and meet the Bruins two days later.
The only club to get to 100 points on the season, the Bruins have deep goal-scoring prowess beyond their lethal first line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. The Lightning are stronger at wing in the middle six of their lineup, but Boston has three talented centers in Bergeron, David Krejci and Charlie Coyle.
The team that could give Boston the most trouble in the first round may not be the Lightning; instead, it might be the Washington Capitals.
While the Lighting give the Bruins a run for their money via the goal-scoring ability of their skaters, the Capitals bully them with pure force. Earlier this season, Washington injured both Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy in a game Boston managed to win, but the Caps could do serious damage with their physical play anchored by Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin.
In the West, the Blues come a lowly fifth in the Stanley Cup odds (+1100), behind the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights in their conference. It's hard to repeat as champion, to be sure, but why are oddsmakers so low on St. Louis?
After all, before play paused March 12, the Blues had won 10 of their last 12 games. Goaltenders win games in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Jordan Binnington has more than proved he's up to the task, let alone the fact that he will be spelled by Jake Allen.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, Nathan MacKinnon earned a Hart Trophy nod for his ability to keep the team competitive (and score 93 points, including 35 goals) while linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog were out injured. On the blue line, Cale Makar is a Calder Trophy candidate.
The Golden Knights are another favorite to go all the way, and there's no denying the star power of their top line of Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson and Mark Stone. However, Pacioretty is not with the team in the bubble, and there is no clear timetable for his return. Missing the left winger for any length of the postseason severely dampens Vegas' chances of hoisting its first Cup.
The Blues and Avalanche open Western Conference round-robin play Sunday, and if Colorado can defeat St. Louis—its biggest obstacle en route to the Stanley Cup Final—there's no question it can go all the way.
Stanley Cup prediction: Bruins over Avalanche in six.