Will Ryan O’Reilly and the St. Louis Blues repeat as Stanley Cup champions? Photo//Patrick Smith/Getty Images.

On March 12th, the NHL paused the 2019-2020 regular season due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus and the last four and a half months have been tough for all hockey fans.

Throughout the hiatus, it seemed unlikely the NHL would return for the remainder of this season and possibly even the 2020-2021 season. 

In addition to health and safety concerns, there were several other question marks surrounding a potential restart. Where would the games be played? Will the regular season be finished or will the league start the playoffs instantly? Will every team return?

Despite all of the obstacles the NHL had to overcome, they found a way to mostly please all parties involved and announced its Return to Play Plan on May 26th. 

Players were allowed to begin working out in team facilities on June 8th and training camps opened on July 13th. The league also tested all players and team personnel frequently for COVID-19 and put protocols in place throughout these phases to ensure team safety. 

Fortunately, test results have been promising and protocols have been effective thus allowing the NHL to begin playing playoff games on August 1st. However, this is a much different playoff format than most hockey fans are used to watching.

Similar to the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, the NHL elected to have two hub cities for each conference with a comprehensive system of testing in place at each location. Toronto will host the Eastern Conference teams while the Western Conference will play in Edmonton, which will also be the site for the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final. 

Now, which teams will be making the trip to their respective hub city? Instead of using the traditional 16-team playoff format, the NHL created a new, 24-team system for this unique season. Teams that were in the top 12 by points percentage in each conference at the time the season paused qualified for the expanded playoff. 

Unfortunately, this meant that the season would be over for the bottom teams in each conference: the Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings. 

On a brighter note, however, the expanded postseason gives new life to teams like the Montreal Canadians, Chicago Blackhawks, and New York Rangers that had a slim shot at making the postseason back in March.

In addition to the expanded format, the NHL also added a new round to the playoffs with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which will include a round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine playoff seeding for the remaining rounds and the other 16 teams playing in a best-of-5 series. 

After the qualifying round, the remaining three rounds will be a traditional best-of-7 series and be determined by seeding rather than a set bracket. 

Obviously, the coronavirus is still a serious concern and could derail this plan, but the NHL has everything in place to successfully return. Assuming everything goes well and players stay safe, this postseason has the potential to be more exciting and unpredictable than any other. 

The new 24-team playoff format for the 2019-20 NHL season. Photo//SportsNet Canada.