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Under prospective NHL restart, Isles would face off with Panthers in qualifier series

Best-of-five round would be held in undetermined hub city

May 28, 2020 John Torenli
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The New York Islanders clinched their second Eastern Conference playoff spot in as many seasons Tuesday evening.

And this time, all they had to do to get it was sit on their respective couches and watch NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman during an interview on NBC Sports Network.

Bettman officially revealed the NHL’s plan to restart its season, paused since March 12 due to the novel coronavirus, via a 24-team playoff format spread across two as-yet-unnamed hub cities.

But neither a start date nor specific sites for the Stanley Cup chase have been finalized, leaving the Isles and other NHL clubs to continue gathering in small groups at their training facilities until the league gets the go-ahead to begin staging games.

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“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Bettman said while announcing the league’s Return to Play Plan.

“While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so,” Bettman added.

Under the proposed postseason format, the Islanders, who were in the midst of a season-high seven-game losing streak when play was halted, would qualify for a playoff spot.

New York would meet Florida in a rematch of their memorable 2016 first-round encounter, which ended in the Isles’ first postseason series win since 1993, when former team captain John Tavares potted the overtime winner in Game 6 at Downtown’s Barclays Center.

The Panthers and Isles would play a best-of-five qualifier series with the winner advancing to a more traditional Round of 16 best-of-seven series against one of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference, who will also participate in head-to-head best-of-five to determine seeding.

Bettman listed Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver as potential hub cities for the playoffs, but which two of those sites will ultimately be selected is anyone’s guess at this point.

The Isles, who stood one point behind Carolina and Columbus for the final two playoff spots in the East at the time of the pause, are now officially back in the hunt for their first Stanley Cup crown since 1983.

That pursuit, however, doesn’t figure to begin until July 1 at the earliest.

“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,” Bettman stated. “And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion.”

A rightful conclusion, that is, that comes at the expense of the final 189 regular-season games of the NHL season and guarantees that the Isles will not play a single game in the tri-state area until next year.

New York was scheduled to finish the remainder of this campaign at the renovated Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., but that arena and the Isles’ temporary home here in Downtown Brooklyn did not make the cut for hub cities.

The playoff format was determined in meetings of the Return to Play Committee, which included executives from the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, along with five former veteran players.

“I certainly hope that we can (have a Stanley Cup champion). I certainly hope that is the case,” NHL Players Association Executive Director Donald Fehr told NBCSN.

“I certainly hope that all the necessary agreements, health and safety, and economic, and the rest can be finalized, so that [the playoffs] 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.”

Bettman revealed that selection of the final two hub cities will depend on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations.

A comprehensive system for testing will be in place in each hub city, according to the plan, and each team will be permitted to travel with a maximum group of 50, including players, coaches and staff.

“Obviously, we anticipate playing over the summer and into the early fall,” Bettman said.

“At this time, we are not fixing dates because the schedule of our return to play will be determined both by developing circumstances and the needs of the players.”

Only seven teams did not qualify for the postseason, including the New Jersey Devils. But the Isles’ arch rivals across the Hudson, the New York Rangers, did receive a spot and will meet the Carolina Hurricanes in a best-of-five qualifier series.

The Islanders would meet Florida in a best-of-five qualifier playoff series when the NHL season restarts, creating a rematch of their memorable 2016 playoff series win over the Panthers at Downtown’s Barclays Center. Photo: Kathy Willens/AP

All games in the qualifying round will be played with playoff overtime rules, meaning the teams will play 5-on-5 hockey until a winner is determined regardless of the length of game.

The round-robin seeding games will be played with regular-season overtime and shootout rules with ties in the standings broken by regular-season points percentages.

Bettman did leave open the possibility that the conference and/or Stanley Cup Finals could be played in teams’ home arenas if there is a “substantial change in the outlook of the pandemic.”

“It depends on what the world looks like,” he said. “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 NHL will]. We anticipate playing this without fans, but if at some point things change, then obviously we’d reevaluate.

“We believe we have constructed an overall plan that includes all teams that, as a practical matter, might have had a chance of qualifying for the playoffs when the season was paused,” he added. “And this plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL.”

Isle Have Another: While they wait to figure out when they can begin playing again in earnest, the Isles got some good news on their new arena this week. Construction on the team’s new Belmont Arena is about to resume after being shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran announced the news via Twitter on Sunday, two days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled plans to begin the first phase of reopening the economy on Long Island following Memorial Day. Work on the construction site in Elmont, New York, has been paused since March 27, part of a shutdown of non-essential projects. The arena at Belmont is scheduled to open in time for the 2021-22 NHL season.

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