NHL playoffs continue to feel like they are very close to reality

NHL playoffs continue to feel like they are very close to reality

The NHL is getting close, everybody.

The league is finalizing plans for Phases 3 and 4 of the Return to Play protocol, and then it will need a few days to be approved by a vote from the entire NHLPA membership, but the NHL and NHLPA have got everything in place to give the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs a shot this summer.

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NHL training camps have now been pushed ahead to a planned July 13 opening date with qualifying round games set to begin on Aug. 1, and a Stanley Cup winner planned for early October in the hub city of Edmonton. Games will be played in two hub cities, Edmonton and Toronto, in the first couple of rounds before the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be shipped out west to the hockey hotbed of Alberta.

UPDATE (Monday, July 6 at 6:30 p.m. ET): The NHL and NHLPA announced Monday a tentative agreement on a number of key issues, including a few notable dates involving the 2019-20 season.

--End of Update--

The level of safety guidelines and protocols is thoroughly amazing, all the way down to daily testing for hotel workers and bus drivers for the players, and there will be strict rules designed to keep the bubbles secure while ultimately protecting all of those involved with putting the games back on.

Meanwhile, the NHL released information on current COVID-19 positive rates with 23 players out of 369 testing positive since opting into the voluntary Phase 2 practices.

There have been 35 total players who have tested positive for COVID-19 out of roughly 600 NHL players across the world, which means NHL players are testing positive at a rate of roughly 5.8 percent with zero containment rules put into place outside of the rink. This is actually encouraging news considering that the NHL upped the number of players allowed together on the ice from six to 12 over the last couple of weeks, and there has been no demonstrable spike or spread aside from a handful of St. Louis Blues players and personnel who tested positive last week.

But the Return to Play plan certainly has some interesting features including:

• Families will not be allowed to be with NHL players until the conference finals and/or Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton, so NHL players could be away from their families for as long as five weeks during the qualifying rounds and first two rounds of the playoffs.

• Players with underlying health issues will be examined by doctors and could be restricted from playing if it’s deemed unsafe for them. This will be interesting for NHL players with Type 1 diabetes like Max Domi and Kaapo Kakko.

• Players who need to leave the bubble during play — for childbirth or family emergency for example — will need to be confined to isolation for four days and need four negative test results before potentially being able to rejoin their team.

• NHL players have until three days after the Return to Play is ratified to notify their teams they're opting out of participating in Phase 3 or 4, under the protocols tentatively agreed upon by the NHL and NHLPA. There will be no penalty for doing so.

• The number of people scheduled to be tested daily in the NHL bubble includes: any player/coach/staff member, officials, ice crew, security, hotel bartenders, food service staff, arena food and beverage workers, hotel housekeeping, hotel kitchen staff and player transportation. That will add up to thousands of tests per day.

• Organizational failures to adhere to the Return to Play protocols “could lead to significant financial penalties, and potentially the loss of draft picks” and could result in individual players being ineligible to play and removed from the secured bubble.

• For NHL purposes, the league is going away from the term "hub cities" and instead prefers the terminology Phase 4 Secure Zone, which makes it sound like something out of a science-fiction movie.

All of this is subject to being approved by a simple majority of the 700-plus members of the NHLPA, of course, and that isn’t a slam dunk. It’s likely to happen, but one suspects the final vote is going to be a close one. Even with it being conditional, it feels like the NHL has done this about as well as could be expected under the circumstances.

The biggest question now is whether the NHL is going to be able to pull all of this off.

There will be a requirement for upwards of close to 20,000 tests per day when there are 24 teams involved at the beginning of postseason play, and the testing will need to be rapid and universal throughout the 2-3 months that NHL teams will be playing. Already Major League Baseball is having issues with testing results getting backed up at the COVID-19 testing facility they are using, and it’s creating a situation where MLB teams are suspending practice until it gets resolved.

Could the same thing cause the NHL to come to a crashing halt?

Let’s hope not, because the Return to Play has been about as carefully considered as anything the NHL has ever done, and it really is beginning to feel like there’s going to be playoff hockey in August, September and October. There are still hurdles to be cleared to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs a safe, viable reality for everybody involved, but we’re saying there’s a chance.

How important is getting the No. 3 seed for Bruins?

How important is getting the No. 3 seed for Bruins?

After losing the first two games of the round robin, the Bruins have only two places they can finish in the Eastern Conference's seeding: third or fourth.

So while Sunday's round-robin finale against the Capitals will mean more than one last chance to get into a rhythm before the playoffs. It will determine who they end up facing in the first round.

Trying to figure out whether the Bruins should aim for the No. 3 or No. 4 seed is a bit of a headache. After going through the scenarios and for sure getting that headache, it would very much be worth it to grab that No. 3 seed, assuming the current play-in series hold as is.

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If there are no comebacks in the five-gamers, the No. 1 seed would get the No. 12 Canadiens and the No. 2 seed would get the Blue Jackets. The No. 3 seed would get the Islanders and the No. 4 seed would get the Hurricanes.

A potential decisive Game 5 for the Penguins and Canadiens would be Saturday night, meaning that by the time the Bruins and Capitals play each other for third place Sunday, they'll know who awaits the loser (either Pittsburgh or Carolina). Furthermore, the Flyers and Lightning play for first place Saturday, so the 3 and 4 seed would be able to do some light projections as to whom they might get in the second round.

Neither Pittsburgh nor Carolina are desirable opponents, but let's say Pittsburgh comes back and wins. That would mean if the Bruins win and get the No. 3 seed, they get Carolina, and if they lose, they get Pittsburgh.

That's a yucky scenario either way. Pittsburgh, despite not being the toughest matchup for Boston, is a recent back-to-back Cup winner and will have just found life after coming from behind to win their series. Carolina is loaded on the back end, which would be difficult for a Boston team that is rail thin offensively. The Hurricanes can also score, as they were 11th in the NHL in goals per game this season and added up front at the trade deadline. With the way the Bruins are currently playing, that would be a very difficult series.

The Bruins should hope two things happen: First, the Canadiens hold on to sink the Penguins. Then, Boston does the unthinkable and wins a hockey game when they play the Caps. Though there was plenty to like about the Islanders' roster at the stoppage (J.G. Pageau was a good pickup), having seen the Bruins' issues, the Islanders would be a far preferable matchup to getting Carolina.

Really, if the Bruins could get the No. 3 seed, the Islanders could be just the opponent for them in the first round as they get their act together. Like the Bruins, the Islanders are strong down the middle, but they're even worse on the wing than Boston. The Bruins' defense and Tuukka Rask would theoretically handle business against the NHL's 22nd ranked offense while the Bruins try to figure out which wings to assign to centers David Krejci and Charlie Coyle.

A lot can change in the meantime, but there's more to be gained from a win Sunday than learning that winning is indeed possible. The Bruins shouldn't want Carolina (or Pittsburgh). They should want the Islanders and that No. 3 seed.

Bruins' Torey Krug isn't changing his playing style despite unknown future

Bruins' Torey Krug isn't changing his playing style despite unknown future

There are certainly some guys around the NHL who can become preoccupied with their contracts when it comes to their free agent seasons.

Some like Loui Eriksson seem to take it to another level when there’s potential money on the line in a walk year before sinking down to a lower level of play the rest of the time, and others that can become overwhelmed by the unknown right in front of them.

Some can even change their games and play safer knowing an injury or high-risk/high-loss performances could end up hurting them at the negotiating table.

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Bruins defenseman Torey Krug is absolutely none of those things, however, and showed exactly why in Wednesday’s 3-2 round robin loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Arena in the Toronto bubble. Krug ended up with an assist while playing a team-high 22 minutes of ice time in the game against Tampa Bay, but it was a play toward the end of the first period that showed what the puck-moving defenseman is — and always will be — about.

Blake Coleman took a blindside shot at Brandon Carlo at the defensive blue line after the B’s defenseman got rid of the puck, and Krug too umbrage to his longtime ‘D’ partner getting targeted.  

Krug immediately made a straight line toward Coleman and dropped the gloves with the Lightning agitator acquired at the trade deadline. It was a brief bout that Krug joked on a Zoom call with NBC Sports Boston was more like “throwing pillows”, to be sure.

But the fisticuffs also showed Krug has no intentions of changing the fiery, competitive way he plays, or even worse playing it safe, even with just a few months left on his Bruins contract.

Maybe he stays with the Bruins after this season and maybe there’s just not enough salary cap space to match the big money he’d command on the free agent market, but Krug isn’t ever going to let his individual future get in the way of serving as an on-ice leader for the Bruins.

“To be honest, I never thought twice about [fighting Coleman]. I’ll block a shot with my face if I have to in order to win a Stanley Cup with this group,” said Krug, of the lessons in winning hockey passed on to him during his time in Boston from past B’s defensemen like Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk as well as current veteran leaders like captain Zdeno Chara. “I’m the type of guy that you get what you see. I’m going to give 110 percent, as much as I can. And the group knows it.

That’s why this group is special in the first place because we expect it out of each other regardless of everybody’s individual situation. Regardless of how long somebody has been in the league, we all have each other’s backs and we go to work for each other. We have our own individual contracts and we all do things our certain way, but at the end of it, we all bond and play for each other. That’s what makes a team successful.

One other thing: It seems pretty clear there aren’t going to be any Bruins contract extensions with Krug while the Stanley Cup Playoffs are ongoing.

He said his focus is on the task at hand in the postseason and he’ll think about his contract, his future and the status of his tenure with the Bruins when the current Stanley Cup run has come to either a happy or unfulfilled conclusion.

“I’m not even thinking about [free agency]. My focus right now is on helping the Boston Bruins win hockey games. I really, really enjoy being part of this group. I have lifetime friends on this team. I’m just trying to embrace the opportunity we have here,” said Krug during an exclusive Zoom call with NBC Sports Boston. “It’s unique in a sense that I get to do it in a bubble and we get to hang out every day and enjoy each other’s company. I’m just trying to embrace it. I’ll think about all that other stuff after the season.”

There is still some question about just how much COVID-19 and the significant economic aftershocks of it on the NHL are going to impact player contracts this offseason, and for a few more seasons beyond next one as well.

It may mean that Krug’s seven-year career might be over with the Bruins in the next few months because they simply can’t afford the $7-8 million per season he’ll command amidst the salary cap crunch.

But Krug’s selfless physicality served as the spark plug catalyst for Boston’s improved play in the tight round-robin loss to Tampa Bay, and he showed with his actions that he’s not about to change the feisty spirit to his game — regardless of what the future holds.