After pausing the regular season on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NHL is back on the ice starting Saturday, August 1. And like a fourth-line enforcer, don’t expect any punches to be pulled.
Because the regular season cut off before all teams had a chance to clinch a playoff berth, the NHL had a savvy idea — how about a qualifying round? The league's brand new 24-team format features 8 extra teams who otherwise would not have earned a spot in the postseason. But that doesn’t mean that all 24 are automatically in the playoffs. Instead, the top four teams from each conference get to keep their guaranteed spots and play in a round-robin format to determine their seeding, while the other 16 take the ice in best-of-five qualifying round play. The winners will earn the chance to keep their postseason dreams alive, and the losers will hit the links.
Got it? Good. Let’s get into it.
Eastern Conference Round-Robin Preview
National TV Schedule (All games played at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto)
Note: Games may be subject to local market blackouts
Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers vs. Bruins, 3 p.m. ET – NBC* (in select markets)
Monday, Aug. 3: Capitals vs. Lightning, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Lightning vs. Bruins, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Capitals vs. Flyers, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Flyers vs. Lightning, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Bruins vs. Capitals, TBD
League standing: 1st
The Bruins were sitting pretty when the season cut off — leading the league, a cool 8 points ahead of the next-best team in the East, and Presidents’ Trophy winners. The club made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last season, and little has changed on their roster since. They’ve got a powerhouse offense led by David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, playoff experience and a veteran roster, plus solid goaltending. There’s no question that Boston will be a force to be reckoned with.
Tampa Bay Lightning
League standing: 4th
Tampa was only one win behind Boston at the pause, but was still 8 points from catching the conference leaders. Fans haven’t forgotten their epic choke in the first round of last year’s playoffs, when they were swept right out of the competition by the late-blooming Columbus Blue Jackets. The Lightning played a solid regular season, but some swaps made around the trade deadline have left their chemistry questionable. As far as injuries go, the biggest lingering question mark for this club is Steven Stamkos, who underwent surgery in late February for a core-muscle injury and was a scratch for the exhibition game against Florida.
League standing: 5th
The Caps are heading into this postseason with a roster that’s strikingly similar to the one that won them their first cup in 2018. They added the Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk just before the pause, which could give them an extra bit of fire on their front end. While the forward is heading toward the tail end of his career, Kovalchuk's veteran experience could certainly pay off when things get hairy. Ultimately, though, all eyes will be on Samsonov and the Capitals blue line to see if they can get it done.
League standing: 6th
The pandemic struck at a truly unfortunate time for the Flyers, who were on a crazy hot streak before the pause. They had tied the league-leading Bruins for the best record since January 8 and were just about to catch the Capitals at the top of the Metro division. Now the big question is whether that momentum will carry through. Exhibition play seemed to hint at ‘yes’, but it’s hard to call at this point.
Eastern Conference Qualifying Round Preview
(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens
Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens vs. Penguins, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 3: Canadiens vs. Penguins, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*
The Canadiens barely snuck into the qualifying round, and although the Pens were on the outside looking in at the break, they’ve been a playoff staple for years. While it seems obvious which way this will tilt, it’s not a homerun for Pittsburgh just yet. They have dangerous veterans and a solid striking force in Guentzel and Zucker (not to mention Crosby and the OG crew), but if Carey Price gets hot in net for the Canadiens, they could have their work cut out for them. Montreal will need key players like Tatar and Gallagher to stay healthy and in fine form to give themselves a fighting chance.
(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers
Saturday, Aug. 1: Rangers vs. Hurricanes, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 3: Rangers vs. Hurricanes, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes vs. Rangers, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Hurricanes vs. Rangers*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Rangers vs. Hurricanes*
Rangers fans have to like their odds with this matchup. New York swept the regular season series against Carolina, winning all four contests by a combined score of 17-9. Henrik Lundqvist is playoff-tested in net, but it will be a tough call between him and Shesterkin, who was performing well before the break. They’ve also got the youngest roster in the playoffs, with guys like Panarin and Zibanejad putting up solid points. Carolina shouldn't be counted out yet, though — the months-long pause gave them time to recover and get some key players back from injury.
(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers
Saturday, Aug. 1: Panthers vs. Islanders, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Panthers vs. Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*
Like the Rangers, the Islanders also swept their season series against their qualifying round rivals and sent the Panthers home from all three matchups with zero points. But they did not begin the pause in a happy place; their playoff berth was bleeding through their fingers, and it would have been a fight to the end to stay in the running. The Panthers, on the other hand, are getting a second chance at life with this qualifying round. They have a solid offense and a key puzzle piece in Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, but it may be tough for them to break through the Isle's tough defense.
(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets
Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, TBD
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets*, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*, TBD
This is probably the most evenly balanced matchup of the qualifying round: The teams were side-by-side in the standings, tied at a .579 win percentage, and had a 1-0-1 series record. The Leafs notoriously boast young superstar talent, but the Jackets have been focused on slow and steady growth for a few seasons now. With Jones and Atkinson back on their roster, Columbus could easily shut down Toronto’s dancing offense, but only if they keep their defense strong.
Western Conference Round-Robin Preview
National TV Schedule (All games played at Rogers Place in Edmonton)
Sunday, Aug. 2: Blues vs. Avalanche, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 3: Stars vs. Golden Knights, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche vs. Stars, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights vs. Blues, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, TBD
St. Louis Blues
League standing: 2
The Blues come into this postseason chasing the white whale of hockey: Back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. Usually, a cup-winning team heads into the following season on less rest than the competition, so making it through the full playoff stretch is a tall ask. But with their championship team largely intact — and Tarasenko possibly rejoining the roster after a season of injury — the Blues will be out to show the rest of the league what a few extra months of recovery can do.
League standing: 3
The Avs were held together with crazy glue and sheer willpower when the truncated regular season ended in March. While the break may have put a slight damper on their momentum, it was a blessing in disguise for their roster. Key players like Rantanen and Grubauer are back on the healthy list, and this team is ready to roll. They’re missing the deep playoff experience of many other playoff teams, but that may not matter — this Colorado team has finally found their legs, and they are hungry.
Vegas Golden Knights
League standing: 8
When the season paused, the Knights were leading the Pacific division by a solid 8 points. They also pulled off a clutch trade deadline acquisition by snagging Lehner from the Blackhawks. With Lehner and Fleury as their two options between the pipes, opponents are going to have a hard time scoring against them. They’re experienced, talented, and well-poised, but this postseason they’ll have to kiss their home ice advantage goodbye. Without one of the most electric arenas cheering them on, it will be an interesting run for Vegas.
League standing: 10
The long break may have helped younger teams like the Avalanche heal, but it could prove a disadvantage for the aging roster of the Stars. This club relies heavily on structure to keep up their strong defensive showing, and the time away from the ice could be an issue. Dallas is weak offensively, ranking 26th in the regular season — the only playoff team that ranks lower is Columbus — and will have to step up if they want to get enough pucks in the net to advance.
Western Conference Qualifying Round Preview
(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks
Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, 3 p.m. ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 3: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD
McDavid and Draisaitl are an absolute force for Edmonton, that much is undeniable. Under the duo’s tutelage, the Oilers have finally grown into a real contender — but can they carry the team all the way? The Hawks certainly didn't look like a playoff team early in the season, but it’s still possible they pull out a series victory. They have a veteran roster that knows how to turn it on in critical moments, and if they can keep the Oilers off the powerplay and slow down their dynamic duo, they just might have a shot.
(6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes
Sunday, Aug. 2: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Predators vs. Coyotes*, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Coyotes vs. Predators*, TBD
The Predators played a fairly average season, doing well enough to qualify for a postseason spot but not giving any indication of pending heroics. Rinne is more playoff tested than Saros, but his goaltending has lapsed from its usual steadfast performance. The Coyotes, on the other hand, have gotten stronger since the break; with the signing of Taylor Hall and the time for Kessel and Ekman-Larsson to get nice and rested, they could come into this with a second wind.
(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild
Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild vs. Canucks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Wild vs. Canucks, 10:45 p.m. ET – USA Network
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks vs. Wild, TBD
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild*, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks*, TBD
As seems to be the trend in the Western Conference, this matchup could go either way. The Canucks went 1-1-1 against the Wild in the regular season, but their decidedly green roster can only get more experienced. After shaking things up in the coach’s corner, Minnesota continued their upward trend in the latter half of the season and finished as the second-best defensive team in the league behind Boston. They also adopted much more aggressive offensive tactics, which could spell trouble for Demko, who hasn't experienced a playoff series between the pipes. Vancouver also has very little playoff experience among their young core (with the notable exception of JT Miller), but they have the talent that could help them light the fire they need to advance.
(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets
Saturday, Aug. 1: Jets vs. Flames, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets vs. Flames, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames vs. Jets, 4:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames vs. Jets*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*, TBD
These two teams only played each other once this season, which should make for a fun meeting of strangers in the qualifying round. The Jets have a solid foundation to lean on in Connor Hellebuyck, a Vezina trophy nominee who finished out the regular season with a .922% save percentage. They also have a secret weapon in Kyle Connor, who put up 5 goals in 4 games leading up to the pause. But the Flames ended their season on an offensive surge led by Gaudreau and Tkachuk, so it will take more than a solid goaltender and a single scoring machine to keep the Jets afloat through this series.
The puck drops on the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round Saturday, August 1. For the best coverage of NHL Playoffs on NBCSN, USA, NHL Network and more, sign up for Sling Blue + Sports Extra using the link below!