SUNRISE, Fla. – The National Hockey League is trending in a direction that would see the Stanley Cup Playoffs being played sometime this summer.
Just that fact, in and of itself, has to bring some sense of warmth and comfort to hockey fans that have been chopping at the bit to see their favorite players scoring goals, making saves and competing for the Stanley Cup in live, televised games.
On Friday, the NHLPA Executive Board voted in favor of authorizing further negotiations with NHL executives on a format that would include 24 teams returning to play this season.
There is nothing set in stone about the format, with many variables and obstacles still needing to be ironed out between the two sides, but it's a big step in the direction of actual, professional hockey being played in the not-too-distant future.
According to the NHL’s proposal, which was first reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the top four teams in each conference, based on percentage points, would automatically qualify for the playoffs. The remaining 16 teams, eight per conference, would participate in a play-in round, with each series being best-of-five.
The winners would become the second half of the playoff teams, joining the top four of each conference that automatically got in.
The seeding of those top four teams, and how the playoff bracket would set up after the conclusion of the play-in series', are still areas that have to be agreed upon.
It's also expected that the league settles on one or two locations for these games to take place, in order to quarantine all the required personnel for what would be up to several months.
Several cities have made bids, with Edmonton, Columbus, Toronto and Las Vegas among the cities vying to host the league once it resumes.
Knowing that there will be 12 teams per conference returning to play (with seedings based on percentage points when the league paused) the play-in brackets come into focus.
According to this format, the Panthers would qualify as a No. 10 seed and face the No. 7 seed, which, as fate would have it, is a familiar foe in the local lore of recent playoff appearances; the New York Islanders.
Fans in Florida don't have to go back very far in their collective memories to recall 2016 opening round Game 6 in Brooklyn, and what should have been a Roberto Luongo shutout win to force a Game 7 in Florida. Instead, the Panthers' attempt to put the proverbial final nail in the coffin was foiled on a last-minute play that inspired the well-known, infamous moniker which has embodied that moment, that game, and really, that season, in the years since; Trocheck was tripped.
Looking ahead to a possible five-game series between Florida and the Isles, if we're basing things on how each team was playing when the league put things on hold, that would be advantage: Panthers.
Before getting too excited, fans must remember that by the time these games are played, teams will have been off for three or four months, so there is no way to accurately predict how anyone will perform, and who may or may not hold an advantage.
For Florida, head coach Joel Quenneville will likely try to figure out how to get his team playing in a similar fashion to how they were looking when the coronavirus pandemic hit. The Panthers' last three games were three of their best of the season.
Meanwhile, Islanders bench boss Barry Trotz would be best advised to embrace the stoppage and treat it as an opportunity for a fresh start, considering how his much squad was struggling in February and March.
Florida went 0-2-1 in three games against the Islanders during the regular season, but all three games came early in the schedule, the most recent on being played on Dec. 12.
Neither team closely resembles the ones that faced off that night at the BB&T Center.
The Islanders went on an amazing run when the season began, embarking on a franchise-record 17-game point streak (a 15-0-2 stretch that included 10 straight wins) from Oct. 12 to Nov. 23.
It set them up nicely in the Metropolitan Division standings, and it's a good thing, as the inconsistent play that followed the Isles epic stretch had them fighting for a Wild Card spot when the NHL hit pause.
Since the calendar flipped to 2020, New York has a subpar 10-13-7 record. They stumbled into the stoppage on a 7-game winless skid (0-3-4) and on an overall stretch of just two wins in 13 games (2-7-4).
What's changed since the team was a defensive juggernaut just a few short months ago? For one thing, the Islanders aren't quite as tough in front of the net as they were last season, when they allowed a league-low 191 goals (they've already surrendered 190 goals this season, with 14 games unchecked on the schedule).
During their first 15 games of the season, the Islanders gave up three or more goals just four times. During the final 15 games they played prior to the stoppage, they allowed three or more goals 11 times (and if you want to go further back, 21 times over their last 30 games).
Goals against continued to rise as teams were attacking the net more and more, creating better chances on rebounds and making New York's goaltending tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss work extremely hard.
Losing Adam Pelech and his hard-nosed, 20-plus defensive-defenseman minutes per game to a season-ending Achilles injury in early January has certainly played a part in the Isles struggles as well.
If Trotz and his players can't find a way to stop the ship from leaking, they could be in for an extremely tough series against a Florida team that has been one of the top scoring squads in the territory this season.
Speaking of the Panthers, Quenneville's bi-polar Cats will be hoping to pick up exactly where they left off when the NHL factory stopped churning out games in mid-March, as Florida had just played three of its best games of the season.
Florida, if you remember, had been riding some extreme waves during the early months of 2020. They won six straight games heading into the late-January All-Star break and had the look of a team that was finally figuring out how to execute their new coach's systems.
When games resumed 11 days later, Florida was an entirely different group though, logging a gut-wrenching 5-9-2 record from Feb. 1 to March 1, a stretch that included a franchise-worst eight-game home losing streak.
A closed-door meeting and a couple spirited practices later, the Panthers, once again, looked like a transformed team. The increased level of effort and awareness in the defensive zone was the catalyst that had Florida resembling Quenneville's cup-winning teams in Chicago, which were known as much for their ability to score as for how difficult they were to play against in the defensive zone.
If both Florida and the Islanders resemble the squads that entered the stoppage, the defensively-challenged Isles would have their hands full with the aggressive and talented Panthers, especially considering the Cats’ newfound toughness in their own zone.
Based on the NHL's proposal, the winner of the Panthers-Islanders series would then play the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Determining the order of the top four seeds in the conference is one of the aspects still being negotiated by the two sides. The top four in the conference are Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia.