Jonathan Toews knew it looked bleak.
He saw the standings. He knew his Chicago Blackhawks probably weren't going to make the playoffs. They ranked 12th of 15 teams in the Western Conference in point percentage in March.
"We were kind of going down the road where our playoff chances were dwindling," said Toews, the former UND star and Blackhawks team captain. "We would have been a longshot."
Then, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything. It abruptly shut down the season in early March. Upon the return, the NHL altered its playoff format for the restart, allowing 24 teams in the playoffs instead of the regular 16.
That means the Blackhawks find themselves in the Edmonton Hub as a playoff team getting an unexpected shot at the Stanley Cup.
Chicago, the No. 12 seed, will play the fifth-seeded Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-five, first-round series. Game 1 is set for 2 p.m. Saturday on NBC.
"It's a heck of an opportunity," Toews said. "We were able to sneak in under these rules and under this format, so it's an opportunity for all of us, regardless of whether there are fans in the building or not, there's something to play for."
A pair of former UND standouts will be aiming to pull off some magic with the Blackhawks.
Toews, a former alternate captain at UND, has already won three Stanley Cups with Chicago, taking home titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015. Drake Caggiula, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2016 NCAA Frozen Four, is aiming for his first Stanley Cup.
The opening series will be extra memorable for Caggiula. He'll be going against the team that traded him away, Edmonton.
The Oilers, meanwhile, are coached by former UND forward Dave Tippett, a member of UND's 1982 NCAA national championship-winning team.
"It's a good experience for everyone, because the veteran guys who have played a lot of playoff hockey have never experienced anything like this before," Toews said. "The young guys who have never played in the playoffs. . . there's no better opportunity to try to get your feet wet and try to show your teammates what you can do."
Although the Blackhawks struggled for much of the 2019-20 season, they showed during their lone exhibition game in Edmonton why they can be so dangerous. Chicago beat the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues 4-0 on Wednesday. Toews had two assists.
"Every game, that thought of the Cup being on the line has to be in the back of your mind," Toews said. "You win one game, there's no telling how far you can go."
Oilers vs. Blackhawks
Best-of-five series, in Edmonton
Game 1: 2 p.m. Saturday (NBC).
Game 2: 9:30 p.m. Monday (NBC Sports).
Game 3: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday (NBC Sports).
Game 4: Aug. 7 (if necessary).
Game 5: Aug. 8 (if necessary).