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Bolts make playoffs but won’t play in Tampa

The NHL announced Tampa isn't considered a hub city as part of its return-to-play plan.
Credit: AP Photo/Duane Burleson
Tampa Bay Lightning center Carter Verhaeghe, left, celebrates with center Blake Coleman (20), defenseman Erik Cernak (81) and Barclay Goodrow after scoring against the Detroit Red Wings during the second period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Detroit.

TAMPA, Fla. — If the NHL returns this year, it won’t be in Tampa.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s return-to-play plan Tuesday afternoon with a 24-team modified playoff format.

Two hub cities will host the post-season games. Tampa is not on the list, likely because its facilities at Amalie Arena are too small to host six additional teams.

The cities are not yet decided, but 10 locations are being considered: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver. One city will host Western Conference teams, and the other will host Eastern Conference teams.

So what’s this mean for the Bolts?

The important part: They’re in.

The regular season is officially over, which means the Lightning will not play their remaining 12 regular-season games.

Twelve teams from each conference have made the playoff based on points percentage.

The Lightning rank second in the Eastern Conference with a .657 points percentage. As a top-four seed, they will play a round-robin with Boston (1), Washington (3) and Philadelphia (4) to determine their first-round seeding. Each team will play each other once.

The remaining eight teams in each conference will play a best-of-5 qualifying series to advance to the first round.

Tampa Bay won’t know its first playoff opponent until the round-robin and qualifying series are complete.

An interesting twist: Regular season points percentage supersede a head-to-head win in the four-team round-robin.

For example, if Boston and Tampa Bay both go 2-1 in the round-robin, and Tampa Bay beats Boston, Boston will remain the No. 1 seed as the team with the higher points percentage.

The regular-season points percentage for the Eastern Conference are as follows:

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay Sports

Bettman's announcement comes four days after the NHL Players Association voted to approve the league's 24-team proposal.

The final vote was 29-2, with Tampa Bay and the Carolina Hurricanes voting against the expanded playoff.

In a video call Thursday, the Lightning’s players representative Alex Killorn shared his concern about playing in what are essentially exhibition games.

“The only problem I have with that format is that the top teams that have a bye, I don’t know how competitive their games will be,” he said. “Where the teams that are in the bottom will be playing playoff games straight away and potentially will be more prepared for once the real playoffs start after the play-in happens.”

It’s a curious point coming from a Lightning player after the team was swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of last year’s playoffs. The Bolts rolled into the playoffs without having played a meaningful game in the final month of the regular season.

“There’s not going to be any way to (resume the season) that satisfies everyone,” Killorn said Thursday. “We’re just going to be as fair as possible. Whatever it is, we’re going to have to find a way to play with it.”

So when can the Lightning’s shot at redemption resume?

Small groups will be allowed to return to Amalie Arena or the TGH Ice Complex in early June for voluntary workouts. A three-week training camp will open in early July.

Dates and sites for playoff games will be determined later and are dependent on COVID-19 conditions and testing ability.

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