Flyers looking good in expanded playoffs, but Vigneault fine with 16-team format

TORONTO — The Philadelphia Flyers have looked right at home playing in the NHL's expanded 24-team playoff format, but head coach Alain Vigneault isn't big on the idea of doing it for more than one season.

With seeding round-robin wins over Presidents' Trophy-wining Boston and Eastern Conference powerhouse Washington, the Flyers have an opportunity to take the top seed in the conference heading into the post-season's main draw. Philadelphia takes on Tampa Bay on Saturday with top spot in the East on the line. Vigneault says he has been impressed with the intensity so far in these unique playoffs, but he hopes for a return to a more traditional route to the Stanley Cup final after this season.

"Having been there a couple of times, to win four rounds, to win a best-of-seven series, that's a big challenge," Vigneault said during a Friday teleconference. "To add this (preliminary round) to an already 82-game schedule, it would be a real challenge for players, their bodies, their physical health."

Vigneault said the format that has been in place since the 2013-14 season, which sees the top-three teams in each division along with two wild-card teams from each conference make the cut, is challenging enough without adding eight other teams into the mix.

"To win the big prize (Stanley Cup), to win what everybody wants to win, to win four rounds, it's the most demanding trophy there is," Vigneault said. "I don't want to take anything away from the other sports, but in my estimation it's the hardest trophy to get."

The format has been criticized by some for forcing top teams in stronger divisions to face each other in the second round rather than the conference final, but Vigneault said he thinks the battles between division rivals are interesting for fans.

"Personally I like it the way it is," Vigneault said. "To add another step to it after an 82-game schedule? I don't know."

The NHL developed its unique 2020 playoff format, which added a preliminary round to allow more teams a chance to qualify for the main four-round playoff draw, after its regular season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference when the season shut down on March 12, the Flyers were able to bypass the best-of-five playoff qualification series and instead enter a seeding round-robin with the three other top teams in the East.

Philadelphia has made the most of the opportunity to move up in the standings and can now finish now lower than second. Vigneault, however, said getting his players ready is as important as claiming the top seed.

"Like I said prior to the round-robin starting, for us there was that balance between winning and getting our team ready," Vigneault said. "There's a couple of players we'd like to get into some games since we'd been out for such a long time, so form that perspective there's that balance we've tried to find, and at the same time win games."

Like Vigneault, Vegas coach Peter DeBoer also considers himself a traditionalist, but he says he sees some appeal with the 24-team format.

"I think if you had 24 teams make the playoffs every year, a lot more coaches would keep their jobs," he said with a laugh during a videoconference from the team's hotel in Edmonton.

LORDS OF CATAN

With a bit of free time before they return to action, some of the Carolina Hurricanes have been testing their civilization-building skills with a few rounds of "Settlers of Catan."

The popular board game, which sees players compete against each other to gather resources and build settlements and roads on an island, seems a far cry from the "Call of Duty" and "Fortnite" video-game sessions NHL players often talk about.

While neither Jake Gardiner nor Joel Edmundson would admit to getting in on the action, the defencemen did have an opinion on who among the Hurricanes is the reigning Lord of Catan.

"I heard Slavo (Jacob Slavin) is the guy to beat," Edmundson said.

"And the worst player is (Jordan) Martinook," quipped Gardiner.

The Hurricanes will have time for a bit more fun and games as they await their next opponent. Carolina advanced to the playoffs by sweeping the New York Rangers in their qualification series.

SOLID SURFACE

Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby says the ice at Scotiabank Arena has held up well, despite a lot of use and some hot days in Toronto.

"For having three games (a day), it's pretty impressive that it's held up," Holtby said. "You can see as the games do on it might get a little bit worse, but once you get down to two games a day there will be absolutely no problems at all."

Holtby said not having fans in the seats to warm up the building has been a benefit as far as the ice is concerned.

"They've kept it cold and I think they've done a great job," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 7, 2020.

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