Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play plan went into effect on Monday. Players (up to a maximum six at a time) can begin to train at their respective home training facilities.
It’s another step toward hope that the NHL will return to action at some point. Training camps are still not expected to get underway before July 1, but at least the hockey masses have the actual sport to look forward to thanks to the NHL’s 24-team playoff format.
It begins with a best-of-5 qualifying round. The winners advance to the round of 16, with all series shifting to a best-of-7. Each round will be re-seeded with the highest remaining seed facing the lowest seed each round.
Now is as good a time as ever to look ahead to each qualifying series. There are sneaky good matchups from both conferences, starting this week with the West.
Edmonton Oilers (No. 5) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (No. 12): Just when you thought getting away from the Blackhawks seemed imminent, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews get another chance to play for the Cup.
Kane (31) and Toews (32) have the experience to carry a young team, coach and all. This will prove beneficial for the likes of Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik.
All that said, it’s a tough draw to face Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Oilers. Edmonton’s additions of Andreas Athanasiou and Mike Green vaulted the team as winners at the deadline in hopes of catching the Vegas Golden Knights in the Pacific Division.
Chicago’s uncertainties in net give way to the Oilers, despite Corey Crawford also maintaining that championship experience. Robin Lehner would be ideal for this situation.
Nashville Predators (No. 6) vs. Arizona Coyotes (No. 11): Welcome to the spotlight, Arizona. Some underwhelming play has you in a precarious spot, but you’re getting a shot. And that’s all a team that traded for Taylor Hall could ask for.
The Coyotes are talented, but the desert air somehow eliminates the scoring. Nick Schmaltz and Clayton Keller are the only 40-point scorers on the roster and Phil Kessel finished with a disappointing 38 points.
Good news; Hall had 27 points in 35 games. Bad news; Arizona went 14-17-4 in that stretch.
On the other hand, Nashville went 6-3-1 in its final 10. Roman Josi moved himself into the Norris conversation while Filip Forsberg became the scoring forward the Predators needed. They could benefit from Matt Duchene turning into the $56 million man they made him in July.
Vancouver Canucks (No. 7) vs. Minnesota Wild (No. 10): The Canucks trading for J.T. Miller could be the most underrated move this season. Miller, who was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2019 NHL Draft, led Vancouver with 72 points and was one of the many catalysts in this young offense.
Elias Pettersson took a big step forward in his sophomore year with 66 points in 68 games, and the sudden emergence of Jacob Markstrom as an elite goalie could make Vancouver a wild card in the West.
The Wild are also in that category. Minnesota went 8-4-0 after firing Bruce Boudreau and vaulted into the wild card picture. It would be a gamechanger if the Wild had Kirill Kaprizov, but with the KHL star spending another year in Russia, we’ll have to wait.
Calgary Flames (No. 8) vs. Winnipeg Jets (No. 9): It’s not the Battle of Alberta, but it will be fun. The Flames’ offense isn’t as dynamic as last year’s division-winning unit, but they’ll still form a challenge against Connor Hellebuyck and a high-powered Jets offense.
Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine are a big four that can be problematic for a Calgary team that’s been a roller coaster of performance this season. But the Flames can counter with Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Sean Monahan. But Hellebuyck vs. Mike Smith for the edge in net? That’s a no-brainer.