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NHL returns from virus shutdown with 24-team playoffs

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Montreal (AFP)

Goal-scoring co-champion David Pastrnak and top goaltender Tuukka Rask lead the Boston Bruins into the 24-team National Hockey League post-season that begins Saturday in a coronavirus pandemic shutdown return.

The NHL season was halted March 12 by the virus with more than three weeks remaining in the regular season, so the playoffs were expanded for the league's comeback in two Canadian hub cities, Toronto for 12 Eastern Conference clubs and Edmonton for 12 West teams.

Four top teams in each conference will play one other in seeding games while teams ranked fifth to 12th in each conference meet in a best-of-five qualifying series to decide spots against the seeds in the usual best-of-seven playoff rounds.

"It's a little surreal," New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "After half a summer not knowing what was going to happen, and now the day is here I think everyone's pretty excited.

"Everyone's itching to play competitive hockey again. To be honest, you can only practice so long before you want to hit someone, make an impact that way in a real game."

There were no positives in testing conducted upon arrival in the NHL bubble environments.

The Bruins boasted league highs of 44 wins and 100 points in 70 games when the season stopped, leaving Pastrnak and Washington's Alex Ovechkin atop the goals list with 48 and Rask boasting an NHL-low 2.12 goals against average.

Pastrnak was forced into a 28-day double quarantine after his return from the Czech Republic because he violated the first isolation period skating with others in a rink workout.

"Toughest part about it is that I was healthy the whole quarantine, but at the same time I still couldn't do anything," he said. "It was really tough and frustrating at the same time. It was a really long month."

The Bruins, who won 16 of their last 20 games before the hiatus, will join Washington, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia in East seeding games while they await winners from the qualifying matchups -- Toronto-Columbus, Florida-New York Islanders, Carolina-New York Rangers and Pittsburgh-Montreal.

"Our guys have had enough of playing against themselves," said Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan, who guided the Penguins to the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cups crowns. "I think they're excited about playing against an opponent."

Washington could threaten for a second Stanley Cup in three seasons behind Russian star Ovechkin, who scored twice in an exhibition victory over Carolina.

Defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis was joined in the West seeding games by Colorado, Las Vegas and Dallas. Best-of-five qualifying matchups include Winnipeg-Calgary, Edmonton-Chicago, Nashville-Arizona and Minnesota-Vancouver.

Once the playoffs reach the conference finals, the two final Toronto teams will relocate to Edmonton, where the Stanley Cup Final is scheduled to begin on September 22.

The long hiatus has helped injuries heal and the strain of dealing with the pandemic has helped forge bonds among players that might not have existed in the usually hurried pace of a season.

"I think this is something that no one has gone through, and going through it together, you build those bonds," said Tampa Bay's Brayden Point, who scored twice in an exhibition victory over Florida on Wednesday. "You get to know the guys more personally that way."

The Edmonton Oilers boast the NHL's two assists leaders in Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, both among the top-10 goal scorers as well, and a home-rink advantage, although there will be no spectators at any contest.

St. Louis Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko has not played since last October due to injury but is back and ready, while Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon had 35 goals and the Avalanche was playing well at the halt.

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