The NBA is ready, the NFL is ready, MLB is, well, MLB is Many Lingering Battles.  Three out of four isn’t bad, though.  The NHL is now the third professional sports league to come up with a plan of attack to get players active again and, while is still waiting to finalize a season return, has an established format for the Stanley Cup playoff games after both the league and the players union were able to reach an agreement.  Maybe MLB can pick up a few pointers.

Stanley Cup Playoff Format No Longer On Thin Ice

The same day the NBA was announcing its finalized plan for a return to the courts, the NHL made an announcement of its own.  There won’t be any more regular season games, as the league explained last week, but the NHL and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) have figured out how to schedule the playoffs.

As soon as players are able to get back on the ice, the format will be four playoff rounds – the first and second rounds, followed by the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final.  All four of these will be played as best-of-seven series, with a play-in qualifying round held as a best-of-five.

After each round is completed, the teams will be re-seeded, but will not be bracketed.  Each succeeding round will see the first-place seed in each conference face the lowest-seeded team, and the second seed will play against the second-lowest, etc.  If there are any ties, the league will look to the regular-season points percentage to determine the winner.  This format is expected to be used throughout the entirety of the playoffs.

A Tale Of Two Cities

According to the NHL, there will be 24 teams in the playoff format and Stanley Cup race, with teams divided between two cities that are not yet known for the qualifying round and the seeding round robin.  Among the possible options are Chicago, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Vancouver, among a few others.  These cities will then be known as the “home turf” for the teams, and the qualifying round will be used to determine the higher-seeded team for Games 1, 2 and 5 and will be designated the home team for those games.

Explains NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, “I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount.  While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.

“Let me assure you that the reason we are doing this is because our fans have told us in overwhelming numbers that they want to complete the season if at all possible. And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion.”

Ultimately, the league wants to ensure that it can award the Stanley Cup this year so that the history books won’t force hockey fans to remember 2020 as the year professional hockey was beaten by a bug.  The executive director of the NHLPA, Donald Fehr, is remaining optimistic that the playoffs will be held, telling NBCSN, “I certainly hope that we can. I certainly hope that is the case.  I certainly hope that all the necessary agreements, health and safety, and economic, and the rest can be finalized, so that they can take place. But I hope it is for another reason, because if we can, that would suggest that the world is beginning to return a little bit towards normal, and that’s something that everybody wants and is in everybody’s interest, and we can’t forget that.”

Empty Seats Could Be Required

The chances of fans being able to attend games remain slim.  That could change, depending on how coronavirus protocols are shifted, but the NHL is preparing for a no-fan scenario with the new Stanley Cup playoff format.  Adds Bettman, “It depends on what the world looks like.  If you made me guess today, I think we’ll be in one of the two hub cities or conceivably a third city. But if things change dramatically and we have the ability to go back to the home markets, (the League will). We anticipate playing this without fans, but if at some point things change, then obviously we’d reevaluate.”