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NHL Return Close: 24-Team Playoffs, What it Means for Penguins

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There is momentum for the NHL return to be a 24-team playoff for the 2020 Stanley Cup. After meeting three times last week, the NHL and NHLPA met all weekend, according to TSN reporter Pierre LeBrun. And the Pittsburgh Penguins may draw the short end of the stick.

LeBrun’s report came on the heels of national Sportsnet reporter Elliotte Friedman who said he expects an announcement this week. It is reported “there is more work to do,” but multiple reports indicate the sides are close to an agreement that facilitates the NHL return.

The 24-team playoff scenario would jump straight to the playoffs and forgo the remainder of the regular season. PHN estimates the return time frame at six weeks, as players will need to travel, report to hub cities, quarantine, and begin a two-week training camp.

There also exists talk of exhibition or round-robin games before the playoffs begin.

The league could take another giant step forward on Monday during the Board of Governor’s conference call. The league will hold a virtual meeting with all 31 team governors. While no announcement is expected following the call, agreement during the call could push efforts forward.

The immediate next step for the NHL return will be Phase 2, in which small group on-ice workouts will be allowed. The league has not announced a date or timetable for Phase 2.

The Pittsburgh Penguins Burden

If the NHL does indeed approve the 24-team format, the Penguins will be forced to play the 12th seed Montreal Canadiens in a play-in series. According to Friedman, the NHL and NHLPA are debating a three-game or five-game play-in series.

Such a series would go against Sidney Crosby’s hope. Crosby told TSN’s Daren Dreger last week.

“It’s difficult to win the Stanley Cup, and you want to win it the right way,” Crosby said. “That’s four best four-out-of-seven series. That’s how we know it.”

Montreal gave up their pursuit of the playoffs and were sellers at the NHL Trade Deadline. They were 10 points behind the second wild-card at the time of the pause and not a competitive team. By virtue of the NHL pause and the need for a balanced tournament, Montreal will get another chance.

If the sides agree to a best of three, the Penguins will run the risk of facing a pesky team with a great goalie, former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price. In a seven-game series, the best team usually wins, but needing only two wins is a much different dynamic.

The Penguins great season hit a rough patch just before the pause as the team struggled to integrate healthy players. The Penguins were 3-8-0 in their last 11 games, including a six-game losing streak. Conversely, the Philadelphia Flyers passed the Penguins with an 18-5-1 run.

Whichever teams jell faster or get their legs first could steal a game or two. And that puts the Pittsburgh Penguins in a dangerous position. With a bad game or a bad bounce, a team that doesn’t deserve to be in the playoffs could advance.

The flip side is the Penguins will likely get more games than their next round opponent. Should the Penguins defeat the inferior team, they’ll have a running start at their next opponent, presumably Philadelphia.

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