Rick Zamperin: These are the 4 must-watch NHL play-in series

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Kasperi Kapanen, centre, celebrates his goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets with teammates Mitchell Marner, left, and Cody Ceci during first period NHL action in Toronto on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Now that we know how the National Hockey League is hoping to execute its 24-team playoff format, and potentially when and where the post-season will be played, fans are starting to get excited.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL will use the zaniest tournament ever to determine a Stanley Cup champion.

A dozen teams from each of the Eastern and Western Conferences will take part, with the top four teams before the season was paused on March 12 earning a bye into a round-robin event that will determine which clubs are seeded No. 1 through No. 4.

The remaining eight teams will be paired up in a best-of-five play-in round that will determine the remaining eight playoff squads.

READ MORE: Rick Zamperin: Ranking the NHL’s 10 potential playoff hub cities

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Which of the eight play-in round series will be the most exciting? There are some serious contenders in that debate. Here are the best-of-five matchups.

West: Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators vs. Arizona Coyotes, Edmonton Oilers vs. Chicago Blackhawks

East: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers, Carolina Huirricanes vs. New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens

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Coronavirus outbreak: NHL announces plan to resume 2019-20 season, will go right into playoffs – May 26, 2020

The two best play-in series in the Western Conference are Calgary vs. Winnipeg and Edmonton vs. Chicago.

The Flames-Jets matchup ignites instant images of the fierce battles between the two foes in the old Smythe Division era of the 21-team NHL. Calgary (36-34-7) and Winnipeg (37-34-6) also have nearly identical records. This series has nastiness written all over it.

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The Oilers are trying to become what the Blackhawks once were, a perennial Stanley Cup favourite. Now Edmonton is up against Chicago in a series that will thrust superstar Connor McDavid and NHL points champion Leon Draisaitl against 3-time cup winners Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. You will be entertained.

READ MORE: NHL players face imperfections but excitement in league’s return-to-play plan

Without question, the two most anticipated series in the East are Montreal against Pittsburgh and Toronto vs. Columbus.

The Canadiens had a 0.2 per cent chance of making the playoffs when the NHL postponed its season in mid-March and now find themselves tasked with having to beat the fifth-seeded Penguins. Montreal has one of the best goalies in the world in Carey Price, and we all know how important great goaltending is in the playoffs, while the Penguins have one of the best players of his generation in Sidney Crosby. This series will not disappoint.

The Maple Leafs scored the third-most goals during the regular season and had the second-most even-strength tallies (behind only Tampa Bay) but allowed the fifth-most goals in the league. The Blue Jackets gave up the third-fewest goals in 2019-20, and the seventh-fewest at even-strength, but are fourth from the bottom of the pack in putting the puck in the net. The two completely different styles of hockey will make for a compelling series.

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Rick Zamperin is the assistant program director, news and senior sports director with Global News Radio 900 CHML in Hamilton.

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