The Stanley Cup playoff qualifiers start today. The Lightning have a bye into the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean they won’t play until then.
It’s complicated in a season complicated by the coronavirus.
The Lightning are one of eight teams of the 24 in the postseason — 12 from each conference — that have an automatic spot in the first round of the traditional 16-team playoffs. While the bottom eight teams in each conference play best-of-five series for a spot in the first round, the top four will face each other in a round robin to determine playoff seeding.
Maybe you haven’t heard the term round robin since your youth sports days. Maybe you didn’t understand it even then. So here’s what you need to know about how the NHL’s round robin works.
What is a round robin?
There are two round robins, one in each conference. Every team plays every other team, and the best record in each conference gets its top seed.
In the Eastern Conference, the Bruins, Lightning, Capitals and Flyers will play each other. In the Western Conference, the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights and Stars will square off.
After all six games, the top four seeds in each conference will be set according to the teams’ records.
These games start Sunday.
Who does the Lightning play when?
The Lightning kick things off against the Capitals on Monday. They take on the Bruins on Wednesday, and they play the Flyers on Saturday.
Why are they doing this?
This is what the league settled on to resume its season after the coronavirus forced a shutdown March 12.
Early versions of this structure had the top four teams in each conference with a bye through the round of the playoffs or playing a round robin without anything on the line. The league went with this format to give the top teams an advantage and also have them play meaningful games while other teams played for a playoff spot.
The Lightning voted against this return-to-play format because they wanted to have competitive games to prepare them for the playoffs.
The top four teams in each conference will play three games over 10 days. The the others will play best-of-five series for playoff spots, including a back-to-back.
How will overtimes and tiebreaks work?
Round-robin games will follow regular-season overtime rules. That means a five-minute 3-on-3 and then a shootout, if necessary. (The qualifier games will use playoff overtime rules; teams will play until someone scores.)
A tie in the standings after the round robin will be broken by regular-season points percentage. The Lightning have the advantage over the Capitals and Flyers but not the Bruins.
Do the stats count?
Yes. All team and player statistics from the qualifying and round-robin games will be considered part of the postseason for record-keeping purposes.
Will the teams be re-seeded?
Teams will carry the seed they are first assigned, so by definition they will not be reseeded. The NHL, however, is deviating from its usual playoff-bracket format.
After each round, matchups for the next round will be determined based on each team’s seed. The highest seed will play the lowest still alive, the second highest the second lowest, etc.
So, if Tampa Bay wins its round robin to earn the No. 1 seed in the East and No. 12 Montreal upsets Pittsburgh, the Lightning and Canadiens would meet in the first round of the playoffs. Under a bracket format, the top seed would meet the winner of No. 8 Toronto and No. 9 Columbus.