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NHL's 24-team playoffs pit Blackhawks against Oilers, creating an incredible turn of events for a team that faced long postseason odds

Phil Thompson, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Hockey

CHICAGO -- The NHL's players union approved a playoff format that will send 24 teams to the postseason when the league lifts its coronavirus lockdown. The Blackhawks would face the Oilers in a five-game playoff series in their return to play.

Though it was rumored as a likely scenario when NHL play resumed, it still represents an incredible turn of events for a Hawks team that faced long odds of reaching the postseason.

The Blackhawks had a 2.5% chance of making the playoffs, and one-tenth of a percentage point of winning the Stanley Cup, according to Hockey-Reference.com's playoff probability report, based on 1,000 simulations of the remaining regular-season schedule.

The Hawks talked about the playoffs as a goal leading up to March 12, when the NHL suspended play because of the coronavirus pandemic, but at February's trade deadline the team shipped out goaltender Robin Lehner, who had been splitting games with Corey Crawford, and defenseman Erik Gustafsson, at a time when injuries had hurt the defensive end.

But fate (or perhaps TV ratings) worked in the Hawks' favor.

Players and team executives debated whether to stick to a strict 16-team playoff structure -- based on the traditional points standings -- or expand the field to as many as 24 teams. Not all 31 teams played the same number of games before the shutdown, so some teams in the hunt for a wild card would've been shortchanged.

 

But Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman, who first reported the current 24-team proposal on Thursday, speculated that the Hawks' and Canadiens' devoted fan bases factored heavily into the groundswell of support to broaden the playoff field.

"Oh, it has everything to do with it," Friedman told the hosts of the "Lead Off With Ziggy and Scotty Mac" radio show. "I got a text yesterday from a GM, 'This is all your fault.' And I laughed and I go, 'What do you mean?' (He replied,) 'You TV guys, you're perverting this playoffs.' "

Friedman said there wasn't "unanimous happiness" with the format, which some players and executives told him weren't fair to teams with strong regular-season records.

Hurricanes player representative Jordan Martinook said Wednesday, "I feel like if you're doing the 24-team thing, it basically gives a team a chance that had no chance of making it, which if you play 82 there's maybe 6, 8 percent chance that the team in 12th place (in the conference) makes it."

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