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NHL playoffs preview: Close battles could be on tap in Eastern Conference

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

They’re taking baby steps, beginning the process back, but actual hockey talk is out there.

Now, in Detroit, it’s somewhat muted because the Red Wings were one of the seven teams who didn’t make the cut for the NHL’s return-to-play format, after the season was paused on March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But there are 24 other teams out there that are ready to conclude this peculiar season with a best-of-five play-in series, followed by the usual four rounds of best-of-seven.

Players have begun to have informal skates. Training camp is slated to begin July 10. The playoffs are likely to begin in late July or early August.

Keep your fingers crossed.

There will be two hub cities — one for the Eastern Conference and one for the Western Conference — though the cities have yet to be named.

In this playoff format the top four seeds in each conference — determined by points percentage — will play in a round-robin tournament to determine the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in each conference.

The remaining teams will face each other in a playoff “qualifier,” in a best-of-five series, with the No. 5 seed facing the No. 12 seed, the No. 6 seed taking on the No. 11 seed, and so on.

In each succeeding round, the highest remaining seed will face the lowest remaining seed, unlike the bracketed format of years past.

More: No Red Wings, but NHL playoffs still will have Michigan feel to them

More: As Detroit sits, these former Red Wings are still vying for a Stanley Cup

Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos will likely be back to full health by the time the NHL playoffs start.

Today, we’ll examine the Eastern Conference series. Yes, some actual games.

Here’s a preview of what to expect:

(5) Pittsburgh vs. (12) Montreal

Records: Pittsburgh 40-23-6 (.623 points percentage); Montreal 31-31-9 (.500)

Storyline: Montreal was 10 points out of a playoff spot when the season was paused, but now finds itself alive and competing for a playoff berth. And the Canadiens are dangerous, because of goalie Carey Price.

Key: Pittsburgh has all the talent, with star forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust (Troy) and defenseman Kris Letang. But Price, when he’s on, can steal a series with his high-level play.

Key player: Price. He could be the difference, especially being rested and healthy.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in four

(6) Carolina vs. (11) New York Rangers

Records: Carolina 38-25-5 (.596); N.Y. Rangers 37-28-5 (.564)

Storyline: The Rangers might be the lower seed, but they swept the four-game season series against Carolina.

Key: The Rangers are in a rebuilding phase, but they accelerated the process by getting veteran left wing Artemi Panarin and defenseman Jacob Trouba (Rochester) along with rookie contributions. But Carolina has so much depth.

Key player: Panarin. There’s no better offensive player in this series. He could give the Rangers the slightest of edges in a close series.

Prediction: Carolina in five

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida

Records: N.Y. Islanders 35-23-10 (.588); Florida 35-26-8 (.565)

Storyline: It was three months ago, but Florida was beginning to look like a dangerous team to face. Does that momentum still exist?

Key: The Islanders gained valuable playoff experience last season and their workmanlike approach seems suited for the playoffs.

Key player: Florida paid goalie Sergei Bobrovsky a lot of money in free agency for a situation like this.

Prediction: Florida in five

(8) Toronto vs. (9) Columbus

Records: Toronto 36-25-9 (.579); Columbus 33-22-15 (.579)

Storyline: Few expected Columbus to have as good a season as it had, considering its free-agent defections last summer and avalanche of injuries during the regular season. It’s a dangerous team heading into this tournament.

Key: While Columbus is the plucky underdog, on some fronts, Toronto has the star-studded roster that should defeat the Blue Jackets on pure talent.

Key player: Center Auston Matthews. The Toronto star has yet to make an impact in the playoffs during his young career.

Prediction: Toronto in four

ROUND ROBIN

(1) Boston (44-14-12, .714 points percentage); (2) Tampa Bay (43-21-6, .657); (3) Washington (41-20-8, .652); (4) Philadelphia (41-21-7, .645)

Storyline: How will these top four seeds treat this format? Is the higher seed that important? Boston was running away with the NHL’s best record, but does it matter at this point, three months later?

Key: Health will be crucial, and some of these teams might protect players and ease them back into the lineup.

Key player: Steven Stamkos. The Tampa Bay star was hurt and probably wouldn’t have been available for the start of the playoffs in a normal schedule. He’ll be healthy now.

Prediction: For what it’s worth, Tampa Bay will win this contrived round robin.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan