Playoff schedule released — North Division to play catch-up with back-to-back games

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Like many things in a season like no other, the 2021 NHL playoffs will follow something of a wonky schedule. The postseason slate was tipped off in a pair of tweets from TSN hockey insider Frank Seravalli on Thursday morning.

The regular season is all but complete for the NHL’s USA-based teams, where the final two games will be played tonight — one of them, Los Angeles at Colorado, with Presidents’ Trophy and match-up implications. An Avalanche victory will wrap up first overall via the tie-breaker with Vegas Golden Knights (the Avs have more regulation wins), and a date with St. Louis Blues (61 points) rather than the Minnesota Wild (75).

The NHL has deemed it OK for the playoffs to begin before the regular season ends, but only in divisions whose own slates have wrapped up.

All three divisions on the American side of the border will start the playoffs this weekend, with all series following the metronome pattern of Game Day / Off Day / Game Day / Off Day etc. Each pair of divisional series is offset to each other by a day so that there will be exactly one game per day per division. All series will be wrapped up by May 29 at the latest.

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That is not quite the case in the Scotia North Division, which will get a late start due to the major outbreak of COVID-19 that sidelined the Vancouver Canucks for 24 days between Mar 25-Apr 17. The Canucks have returned to play their final 19 games in just 32 days, that will nonetheless stretch out to next Wednesday afternoon when they finally wrap up a meaningless closing set vs. the Calgary Flames. Even as neither club has qualified for the playoffs, the NHL has evidently deemed it necessary for the other North Division clubs to wait until the divisional regular season is concluded before the playoffs can get underway. But they won’t have to wait much longer than that; the North Division playoffs are set to begin some three hours after the regular season ends!

The puck will drop on playoff action north of the border next Wednesday evening right here in Edmonton, where the Oilers will host the Winnipeg Jets in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series at 7pm MDT. The Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens series will begin the next night, while Winnipeg at Edmonton Game 2 goes Friday. But things get a little clogged up thereafter.

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In an effort to make up some of the time lag, both series will face a back-to-back scenario in Games 3 & 4, with both series featuring a game on Monday, May 24. A TV doubleheader will see Leafs at Habs play Game 3, followed by Oilers at Jets Game 4. As good fortune has it, that’s Victoria Day, a national holiday in this country, allowing some latitude as to start times — none of which have been announced beyond the first two games in each series.

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The back-to-back scenario will present something of a competitive challenge for the Canadian clubs and their coaches. Here in Edmonton, the big question that will surely hover over coach Dave Tippett is how he will handle his goaltending situation. While it is obvious that Mike Smith will be the go-to man as the series begins, the spectre of a back-to-back for a 39-year-old stopper will have to be carefully considered, not to mention a sked of as many as 7 games in 12 days.

How might Tippett handle the situation? Presumably the results from Games 1-3 including Smith’s performance therein will be a key. So too will be the veteran tender’s positive contributions to flow-of-play. Smith’s aggressive puck handling and distribution plays a key role in Edmonton’s d-zone structure, and the coach may be reluctant to break the rhythm by inserting the more-cautious Mikko Koskinen, even for a game.

The good news is that in a playoff scenario, a back-to-back scenario is the same for both teams. It’s not a case of “tired team vs. rested team”, they both will be battered, bruised, and banged up a bit by then. But only one of the two clubs has a 39-year-old #1 netminder.

Expect this discussion point to ramp up in the days to come. For now, the Oilers have one regular season game of their own to play, Saturday afternoon against the woebegone Canucks, a final tune-up before turning their focus entirely to the Jets. Expect Tippett to take considerably more latitude in choosing his line-up for that affair, with Koskinen likely to get the start, possibly with #3 man Alex Stalock in the backup role to give Smith a full day off as he rests up for a hectic playoff run.

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In the post-game avail following yesterday’s 4-3 overtime win in Montreal, Tippett indicated he had no plans to give Stalock any game action in that contest. That said we’ve seen a few NHL teams using the full depth of their roster in season finales so there’s no telling how it may play out.

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Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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