We’ve finally made it. The Vegas Golden Knights are back
Right now, 24 NHL teams are split up in two Canadian hub cities—Western Conference franchises in Edmonton and Eastern Conference squads in Toronto—playing games for the first time in nearly five months.
The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the season indefinitely in March, but the NHL and NHL Players’ Association worked hard to create a return-to-play format. It’s a lot different than what we’re all used to, so don’t fret if you’re feeling lost right now.
We’ve got answers to the questions you might have, and how it all affects the Vegas Golden Knights.
How will this work?
Give it two weeks, and everything will look similar to the traditional playoff setup, with eight teams in each conference advancing through best-of-seven series before two teams square off in the Stanley Cup Final.
Apart from the centralized locations and the games being played without fans, the only other difference from the traditional playoff format is a “qualifying round.” Because the season paused after teams had played about 70 of their scheduled 82 games (the Golden Knights made it through 71), the NHL opened the restart to all clubs that had any realistic shot at reaching the postseason. That meant eight extra teams—four each from the Western and Eastern conferences.
To accommodate them, the NHL has added what amounts to a play-in round to its postseason. Eight teams in each conference will try to win a best-of-five series to advance to the conference quarterfinals, with the top four Western and Eastern teams receiving a bye.
The Golden Knights are among the teams exempt from that qualifying round. They’ll instead play a round robin against the other top three teams in the West—the Dallas Stars (August 3), St. Louis Blues (August 6) and Colorado Avalanche (August 8)—to determine seeding. Two points will be awarded for a win, one point for an overtime or shootout loss, and those results could prove important. The NHL will reseed for every round this postseason, so No. 1 would seemingly have a clearer path to the final than No. 4 would.
The round-robin games will be played under regular-season overtime rules—a five-minute extra period followed by a shootout—but all other games will employ the standard playoff format: 20-minute overtimes and no shootouts.
Will any other on-ice rules be different?
Nope. Expect the same physicality and intensity of a typical NHL postseason.
Will all games be played in Edmonton and Toronto?
Initially, then Edmonton will become the lone site once it’s down to four final teams, hosting both conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final.
The Western Conference team that reaches the championship series will have lived in Edmonton for nearly three months by the time the competition wraps up in mid-October.
The Oilers and Maple Leafs are in the postseason, so won’t they have a home-ice advantage?
They’ll be playing at home, but it’s uncertain whether that will provide an advantage, considering games will be played without fans in the arenas … at least initially.
The NHL hasn’t ruled out allowing some fans in for later rounds, but that will depend on how the pandemic progresses in the weeks ahead.
What safety procedures are in place?
A lot. The NHL posted a 28-page document detailing protocols and scenarios on its website, and here are some key points:
• Teams are permitted a total of 52 personnel, including 31 players plus coaches and front office and support staff.
• Players will live alone for at least the first three rounds. The hope is that their families can join the hub for the conference finals.
• Players are tested for coronavirus nightly, with results expected to be available the following morning.
• A positive test will send a player to quarantine in his hotel room until he’s deemed safe to return, which involves multiple negative tests and an isolation period.
• The NHL or Players’ Association can request that the playoffs be halted if either side believes “commencement or continuation of play would likely create a material risk to player health and safety and/or jeopardize the integrity of the competition.” There’s no specific number of positive tests that would trigger an automatic stoppage.
Can the Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup?
Absolutely. By the odds, they actually have the best chance: The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook lists Vegas at 6-to-1 to win it all.
That makes sense. When the season paused, the Golden Knights were among the hottest teams in the league, having won 11 of their previous 13 games, catapulting to the top of the Pacific Division.
Vegas is a complete team, with one of the best top-six forward groups in the NHL led by Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, a tremendous goaltending duo in Marc-André Fleury and Robin Lehner, and an emerging star on the blue line, Shea Theodore.
Still, it’s important to remember that anything can happen in the wild world of the NHL Playoffs. The Knights were among last year’s favorites and failed to advance past the first round. But look over the roster and it’s apparent Vegas is a primary contender to win the most unorthodox Stanley Cup playoffs of all time.