By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Sports are back, but in the era of the coronavirus, it can all be a bit confusing. The added complication that is the NHL’s always-perplexing playoff structure certainly doesn’t help matters. If you haven’t dedicated yourself full-time to following every single development over the past couple of months, you can be forgiven for not fully knowing what’s at stake in every one of these games.
Fortunately, we do dedicate 24 hours per day to following such matters. Doubly fortunately, we’re here to help, after the Bruins were soundly beaten by the Flyers, 4-1, on Sunday afternoon in Toronto.
This was the first of three games being played by the Bruins in a round robin structure. (The Bruins’ game vs. Columbus on Thursday was strictly an exhibition.) The purpose of this four-team round robin is to determine seeding for the “first round” of the playoffs; an identical structure is in place for the Western Conference.
The round robin field in the East consists of the Bruins, Flyers, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. Each of those teams will play each other exactly once, and the team that emerges with the best record will get the No. 1 seed in the East. (Regular season points will serve as the tiebreaker, if needed.)
For the Bruins, the round-robin schedule looks like this:
Sunday, Aug. 2: vs. Flyers (Loss)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: vs. Lightning
Sunday, Aug. 9: vs. Capitals
In simplest terms, it’s a bit of a reacclimation opportunity for the conference’s top teams, albeit with some serious seeding implications at stake. The much more important goal for the involved teams would be to quickly get back into midseason form.
If you’re wondering, the NHL set the top of the conference up for this because the league also invited four teams that did not have playoff spots when the season was put on hold in March. The league didn’t want to remove those teams’ chances from making the playoffs, and it also didn’t want to make the top-performing teams in the conference have to fight for their playoff lives right away.
So in the case of the Bruins, who were the top seed in the East by a country mile back in March, they now run the real risk of ending up as the No. 4 seed when the “first round” begins. A three-game round robin really can change things quickly.
As for which teams will be playing those top seeds, that will depend on the results of the best-of-five qualifying series that are currently being played by teams ranked fifth through 12th in the conference. The lowest remaining seed from those qualifying series will play whichever team ends up as the top seed from the round robin, the second-lowest remaining seed will play the second-highest-ranked team, and so on and so forth.
The bottom line? The Bruins will be in the “first round” of the playoffs when that round begins. For now, they have three total games to determine where they’ll be seeded between the top spot and the fourth spot. Thus far, they’re 0-1 on that journey.
So really, there was nothing “at stake” for the Bruins in terms of advancing to the first round of the playoffs. And with no real home-ice advantage in the bubble, the stakes are even lower in the round robin. The seeding could prove to be a significant factor in terms of a team gaining a favorable matchup and an “easier” road to the conference finals, but with no other seeds determined just yet, reaching any conclusion requires some level of speculative guesswork — which, given the state of the world and the state of sports, feels appropriate.