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The NHL has officially ended its 2019-2020 regular season due to the coronavirus pandemic — but is planning to move forward with a 24-team playoff schedule if it is able to resume play.
"As we seek some return to normalcy, this is an important day for NHL fans," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday, per ESPN. "Since March 12, we've been hopeful and optimistic that by developing all options and alternatives, we could get to this point. I know I join sports fans everywhere when I say we cannot wait for the players to hit the ice again."
The Return to Play Plan also outlined details of the NHL's 24-team playoff schedule, which would be held in two "hub cities" for the duration of the tournament.
The cities being considered are Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Edmonton, Alberta; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; St. Paul, Minnesota; Pittsburgh; Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia, according to NBC News.
The NHL said that only the players, coaches and a limited number of support staff members of the participating teams would be allowed into the arenas for the games.
"Things are evolving rapidly, and when we decide on locations, we want it to be on the best available information," Bettman said. "The final determination [of hub cities] will depend on COVID-19 conditions, testing availability and government regulations."
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images Brad Marchand (63) of the Boston Bruins gets tripped up against Alexander Steen (20) of the St. Louis Blues
The playoff format, which was agreed upon by teams and the players union, will be based on the standings as of March 12, when the regular season was put on hold due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Per the format, the top four teams of the East — the Washington Capitals, the Boston Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers — and the top four in the West — the St. Louis Blues, the Vegas Golden Knights, the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars — will play a round-robin competition to determine seedings for the next round.
Simultaneously, the remaining 16 teams, seeded by conference, will be paired into best-of-5 elimination series, producing four survivors in each conference to meet the eight seeded teams.
The rest of the season will then participate in a traditional 16-team Stanley Cup playoff bracket.
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The NHL is currently in Phase 1 of its Return to Play Plan, meaning the teams are still required to follow CDC guidelines and self-isolate as much as possible. Any player who tests positive for COVID-19 will not be able to return to training. The league expects to enter Phase 2 in early June when teams can return to their individual practice facilities.
Phase 3 of the plan will mark the opening of formal training camps. Once the league reaches Phase 4, they can report to their respective hub cities and resume play.
Bettman said the overall goal is being able to hold a regular 82-game season in 2020-2021 they anticipate getting back on the ice over the summer and hoping to play until the early fall.
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