PHOENIX — Derek Stepan was ecstatic over the news that the Arizona Coyotes would be returning to the ice this season.
“We got a second chance, and we get to play in the playoffs,” the forward said. “I’ve been saying it since I got down to Arizona. This type of series hockey is just so much fun to be a part of, and I’m looking forward to having some of our younger guys get into a head-to-head matchup against the same guy every night.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s Return to Play Plan on May 26, and the Coyotes are one of 24 teams that will resume competition in the interrupted 2019-20 season.
“Obviously there are lots of things that have to be done, but this marks a very important step along the journey we’re onto taking,” Bettman said on a recent Zoom call with members of the news media. The NHL regular season was suspended on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Coyotes and 15 other teams will participate in a qualifying round to earn a spot in the official first round of the playoffs, while the other eight teams will compete in a seeding round robin to determine the top four teams in each conference. These games will be held in two selected hub cities that have yet to be identified.
“We don’t need to make a decision today,” Bettman said when asked about the process of choosing hub cities. “We’ll probably need to make one in three to four weeks, and at that point we’ll be able to better evaluate how COVID-19 is, in a particular place.”
The Coyotes benefited from the 24-team format: When play was suspended, they were four points back of the final Western Conference playoff spot with 12 games remaining in the regular season.
“The 24-team format is what they’re going with, and that’s where my energy is,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said via Zoom recently. “We’re excited to be in, our players are excited.”
Out of the 12 Western Conference teams that qualified, the Coyotes finished 11th in the standings and will face the sixth-seeded Nashville Predators in the qualifying round. The last postseason battle between these two teams resulted in the Coyotes advancing to the Western Conference Finals in 2012.
This will mark the Coyotes first time back in the postseason since that 2011-12 season, when the team was still known as the Phoenix Coyotes. They eventually lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals.
Stepan, who is an alternate captain for the Coyotes, is among the Arizona players with postseason experience.
Although playoff experience helps on the quest to win the Stanley Cup, he emphasized that players must have a winning mentality regardless.
“This isn’t a learning process, this is about competing for a Cup,” Stepan said. “I think that the focus needs to be getting the first three games under our belt.”
The details regarding when the NHL will officially allow play to start have yet to be determined, but one thing is guaranteed: The Coyotes will be in the fight for the Stanley Cup, something that wasn’t a certainty when the season was cut short.