The NHL announced the schedule Friday along with plans for Toronto and Edmonton to serve as the hub cities for the 24-team Cup Qualifiers and the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The 12 Eastern Conference teams will be based in Toronto, the 12 Western Conference teams will be based in Edmonton.
Edmonton will also host the Eastern Conference Final, Western Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final, which is tentatively scheduled to begin Sept. 22 and will end no later than Oct. 4.
"Both places we're going to seem to have the [coronavirus] contained to a certain extent," said Vancouver Canucks defenseman Christopher Tanev, whose team will play the Minnesota Wild in a qualifier series in Edmonton. "With everything going on, things change every day and every hour. At the moment, I think it was a very smart call by the League to pick those two cities."
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Each arena will host as many as three games a day with a potential 52 games being played over nine days during the Qualifiers, which include eight best-of-5 series and two four-team round-robins. The start times for the Qualifiers in Toronto will be noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. (ET). The start times for the Qualifiers in Edmonton will be 2 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. (ET), which could change by up to 30 minutes.
The first day of play at Toronto will include Game 1s of best-of-5 Eastern Conference Qualifier series between the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens, and the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers. At Edmonton, the Edmonton Oilers will play the Chicago Blackhawks and the Calgary Flames will play the Winnipeg Jets in Game 1 of their best-of-5 Western Conference Qualifier series.
Game times and the television broadcast schedule will be announced at a later date.
"A best-of-5 goes quick no matter how you play it," Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving told Sportsnet. "It's going to be important how you start. Having a good camp and being prepared is crucial."
The NHL is returning to competition the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
The winners of the best-of-5 series advancie to the first round of the playoffs. The top four teams in points percentage in each conference will play a three-game round-robin to determine their seeding.
Training camps open Monday, which is the start of Phase 3 of the Return to Play Plan. Teams will be limited to 30 skaters plus an unlimited number of goalies.
For Phase 4, teams will travel to the hub cities July 26 and play one exhibition game before the qualifiers begin. Teams can bring no more than 28 skaters and 31 total players with them to the hub city
"You want to be careful to make sure you get the work in but not burn everybody out in seven days," Treliving said. "The group has been looking after themselves and skating before they got there. They've been going at it pretty good, from what I understand."
In the Eastern Conference Qualifiers in Toronto, the Boston Bruins (44-14-12, .714 points percentage), Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6, .657), Washington Capitals (41-20-8, .652) and Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7, .645) will play in the round-robin.
The four best-of-5 series of the qualifiers in the East are: the Penguins (40-23-6, .623) vs. the Canadiens (31-31-9, .500); the Hurricanes (38-25-5, .596) vs. the Rangers (37-28-5, .564); the Islanders (35-23-10, .588) vs. the Panthers (35-26-8, .565); and the Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, .579) vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, .579).
In the Western Conference Qualifiers in Edmonton, the St. Louis Blues (42-19-10, .662), Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8, .657), Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8, .606) and Dallas Stars (37-24-8, .594) will play in the round-robin.
The four best-of-5 series of the qualifiers in the West are: the Oilers (37-25-9, .585) vs. the Blackhawks (32-30-8, .514); the Nashville Predators (35-26-8, .565) vs. the Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8, .529); the Canucks (36-27-6, .565) vs. the Wild (35-27-7, .558); and the Flames (36-27-7, .564) vs. the Jets (37-28-6, .563).
Knowing there will be no fans in attendance, coaches and players are anticipating a different kind of game atmosphere.
"We're going to have to generate noise," Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet told NHL Network this week. "A guy makes a big hit or makes a good play, coming off the ice the crowd's [usually] into it. He gets that instant gratitude: 'Hey, great job,' from the fans. But [now] we're going to have to generate that kind of excitement on the bench because it's going to be quiet there."
Inside the hub cities, the teams will be housed in Phase 4 Secure Zones, which include hotels, restaurants, practice facilities and the arenas where the games will be played. Although Toronto and Edmonton will each play in its home arena, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said he doesn't believe those teams will have a significant edge because there will be no fans at the games and the players will have to stay in the hotels like everyone else.
"There's a bit of familiarity with the rink and the facilities in the rink but there are no fans in the rink, so we don't have that advantage," Dubas said. "We don't have a game ops advantage either. As much as it's nice to be close by, I think there's also a challenge that your family is just a few minutes away and on July 26 when we move in [to the hotel], we're all going to be sealed away from them even though they're not that far, especially if something were to happen with your family that you couldn't leave for but was being dealt with very closely."
For statistical purposes, all games from the qualifiers (round robin and qualifying rounds) are considered part of the 2020 postseason. All skater, goalie and team statistics accumulated in these games will be included in the 2020 player and team postseason stats. Achievements from these games and series will be included on Records.NHL.com.
Teams participating in a best-of-5 series during the qualifiers are considered to have made the postseason and participated in a postseason series.