After a 2019-20 National Hockey League (NHL) season unlike any other that included an abrupt 140-day pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hockey is officially back with an epic sprint to the finish. 24 teams remain alive, with the eight remaining lowest seeds in each conference facing a play-in qualification round to advance to the normal 16-team bracket.
A 16-team race for the finish is about the only normal aspect to the 2019-20 campaign, which came to a halt on March 12. Facing the prospect of scrapping a season in which many teams already played 70 games, the NHL and its players were able to come together to create an unprecedented return-to-play plan involving conference playoff hockey in two different hub cities—Toronto for the Eastern Conference and Edmonton for the Western Conference.
Though no fans will be in attendance, players get the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup in a relatively safe environment. With the extended layoff, the teams’ regular-season records can essentially be thrown out the window. Series will be difficult to predict. As far as talent goes, there are four clear favorites on both sides of the ledger. Each of those eight teams gets a free pass into the final 16-team field.