NHL takes March Madness approach to playoff hockey

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Image: Seth Hoffman on Unsplash

While many leagues are adapting to the coronavirus pandemic in interesting ways, the National Hockey League’s March Madness-style hockey tournament is one of the most intriguing returns of any sport.

The NHL is using a 24-team playoff system to determine its new Stanley Cup Champion for the 2019-20 season, despite a long period of inactivity due to COVID-19. This system is reminiscent of the 68-team system used in the NCAA College Basketball Tournaments in March each year, a tournament that was also cancelled as a result of the pandemic. For the NHL, however, things are a bit different.

The league is hosting the tournament in two hub cities, Toronto for the Eastern Conference teams and Edmonton, Alberta, for its Western Conference teams. The top 12 teams from each conference make up the 24-team playoff system. While round-robin qualifying games began Aug. 2, the official playoff tournament kicked off Aug. 11 after eight teams were eliminated from play.

The teams remaining in the playoff bracket are Philadelphia, Montreal, Tamba Bay, Columbus, Washington, New York (Islanders), Boston, Carolina, Vegas, Chicago, Colorado, Arizona, Dallas, Calgary, St. Louis and Vancouver. 

These teams were either seeded highly enough in the original standings to gain automatic entry into the bracket, like the #1 seeded Philadelphia Flyers, or had to win in a qualifying round, like the surprise playoff-bound Chicago Blackhawks. 

Both of these teams have intriguing playoff stories already, with new chapters ready to be written.

Philadelphia’s playoff story is an interesting one to watch: the Eastern Conference team was one of the hottest squads in the league prior to the COVID-19 shutdown in the spring, reeling off a 19-6-1 record between Jan. 8 and the play stoppage on March 12, according to NBC Sports. The Flyers look to capture the momentum they had back in March and translate it to a first-round win against the #8 seed Montreal Canadiens, a team that snuck its way into the playoffs.

The Blackhawks are at the other end of the spectrum this season. They finished the regular season before the break with a 32-30 record and just 72 points, good for dead last in the Central Division of the Western Conference in the NHL. The Blackhawks managed to upset the Edmonton Oilers in their home stadium to gain entry to the playoffs, however, and now face the monumental task of taking on the #1 seeded Vegas Golden Knights.

These two teams and their drastically different stories exemplify how the NHL Playoffs this year can truly give any team a shot at the Stanley Cup. NHL Tournament play continues through the month of August.