How do the NHL playoffs work? 2024

The NHL playoffs are one of the greatest tournaments in sports. They are must viewing for any sports fan. However, they do have their own nuances and need-to-knows for any follower of the game.  

Embed from Getty Images

How do the NHL playoffs work? 16 teams qualify for the NHL playoffs.  12 teams are placed in the playoff bracket according to their conference and division while the other four qualify as wild card teams. From there a team must win 4 rounds of best-of-seven series, while the losers are out. 

Classic Photo of Steve Yzerman with the Cup

What is the NHL playoff format?

The NHL playoffs are made up of 4 rounds with each round being a best-of-seven games.  Each team needs to win 4 games to move onto the next series. Each series will have a minimum of 4 games and maximum of 7 games. 

For a team to capture the Stanley Cup the need to win a total of 16 games. They can do this in a minimum of 16 games or a maximum of 28. 

At the start of the playoffs there are 16 teams and the number of teams per round breaks down as such

  • Round 1 Conference Quarterfinals – 16 teams
  • Round 2 Conference Semifinals – 8 teams
  • Round 3 Conference Finals – 4 teams
  • Round 4 Stanley Cup Finals – 2 teams 

How many teams make the playoffs and how do the playoffs work?

Of the 32 teams that are in the NHL, 16 will make the playoffs.

To know how the playoffs are set up you first need to be familiar with how the teams are structured into conferences and divisions, and how this determines who makes the playoffs.

Embed from Getty Images

Conferences, Divisions, Wild Cards

Conferences: The 32 teams are divided into two conferences – Eastern Conference and Western Conference. 

Divisions: There are 4 divisions in total in the NHL with each Conference having 2 divisions. 

  • Western Conference has the Pacific Division and Central Division, 
  • Eastern Conference  has the Metropolitan Division, and Atlantic Division.  

At the end of the regular season the top 3 teams in each division based on number of points earned through wins and losses in overtime or shootouts qualify for the playoffs

But 3 teams in 4 divisions only makes 12 teams? Where do the other 4 come from?

Wild Card teams: Each conference will have two wild card teams in addition to the 6 teams who qualify through their divisions. 

The wild card teams are determined by which two teams (other than the 6 who qualified through the divisions) have the next highest amount of points in the standings. These two teams could each come from the same division, or there can be one from each division. 

Now we ready to see how the hockey playoffs are set up:

The first two rounds of playoffs are structured around divisions with a wild card team thrown in – this wild card team may be from either their division or the other division within their conference. 

In the first round of the playoffs:

  • The division winner will play a wild card team
  • The 2nd and 3rd place teams will play each other

In the second round of the playoffs

  • The winners of the first round divisional playoff series will play each other

In the third round (Conference Finals) of the playoffs:

  • The winners that have come out of the divisional playoffs will play each other

In the fourth round (Stanley Cup Finals) of the playoffs:

  • The winner of each Conference will play each other for the Stanley Cup

Let’s use an example so we can make sure we have it.

Here are the standings of the Western Conference on April 21, 2022:

If the playoffs were to start on this particular day this how we would determine the match ups:

  • Colorado is the winner of the Central division and Calgary is the winner of the Pacific division. 
  • Since Colorado has the highest point total between them and Calgary they will play the Wild Card team with the lowest points, and Calgary will play the Wild Card Team with the most points
  • The second place team in the Central Division will play the third place team in the Central Division 
  • The second place team in the Pacific Division will play the third place team in the Pacific Division
  • The two teams who didn’t qualify through securing a division spot, but have the next highest points in the conference are the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars

When we put all this together we get:

Round 1 Divisional playoffs through the Central Division:

  • Colorado Avalanche will play the Dallas Stars
  • Minnesota Wild will play the St. Louis Blues

The winners of the above series will play each other in Round 2 

Round 1 Divisional playoffs through the Pacific Division:

  • Calgary Flames will play the Nashville Predators (the Preds come over to be part of the Pacific Division playoffs)
  • Edmonton Oilers will play the Los Angeles Kings

The winners of the above series will play each other in Round 2

The winners of the Round 2 series will meet in the Western Conference Finals (Round 3) to see who will go onto the Stanley Cup Finals

All of the above will happen on the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket as well.

The winners of the Western Conference will play the winners of the Eastern Conference for the Stanley Cup. 

Phew – that was a lot. Let’s catch our breath by reviewing a previous Stanley Cup bracket!

Here is a picture of a Playoff Bracket to give you another visual of how things work in the playoffs. 

Notes about the playoff bracket:

  • Colorado came over from the Central Division as the Wild Card team to play the Calgary Flames as the Division winner
  • Colorado beat Calgary and played the winner (San Jose) of the other Pacific Division playoff series. 
  • Columbus also moved divisions and ended up beating the Atlantic Division champ Tampa Bay Lightning 
  • St. Louis came out of the Central Division playoff bracket to play San Jose who came out of the Pacific Division bracket
  • Boston came out of the Atlantic Division Bracket to play Carolina who came out of the Metropolitan Division bracket
  • St. Louis won the Western Conference and played Boston who won the Eastern Conference for the Stanley Cup
  • St. Louis won the Stanley Cup

Do the hockey playoffs reseed? 

Hockey playoffs do not reseed. Each team will have to play rounds through their own division before facing the winner of the other division in the Conference finals. 

At each step the only option you have is to play the winner from the series of the team that falls in line with how the playoff bracket is initially set up. 

However, the team with the highest point total of the two teams from the regular season  will get home ice advantage and get one additional home game in the series. 

How does overtime work in the playoffs?

Overtime in the playoffs work differently than overtime in the playoffs.

Overtime in the regular season consists of an overtime period of 5 minutes followed by a shootout if the teams are still tied. This format is scraped for the playoffs.

In the playoffs, if the teams are still tied at the end of regulation, there will be a regular intermission of 15 minutes followed by another 20 minute period. The game will be over once one team scores.

How many periods in the playoffs? 

Well, I am glad you asked!

There is an unlimited amount of periods that could be added. If no one scores by the end of the first overtime period, the format for playoff hockey is to take another intermission and then add on an additional overtime period.

This will be the pattern until somebody scores.

Most games within the first overtime period or at most the second overtime period. However, there is the odd game that can go much, much longer.

The record for most overtime periods in one game is 6 back in 1936. However, recently, in 2020 there was a game between Columbus and Tampa Bay that went to 5 overtimes. That is almost two extra games of hockey!!!!

Embed from Getty Images

Are there shootouts in hockey playoffs? 

There are no shootouts in the NHL hockey playoffs. As mentioned above, when a game goes to overtime the game will continue with overtime periods of 20 minutes until one team scores a goal. 

The shootout was introduced into the NHL regular season in 2005-2006 and eliminated the tie. There was an appetite to eliminate games from ending in a tie in the NHL. 

Some people see it as an individual skill competition, and would like to see it not even part of the NHL regular season. However, most fans, I think, enjoy having a shootout to decide a game in the regular season.

There is little appetite to introduce the shootout in hockey playoffs. No one wants to have an individual skill competition decide an NHL playoff game. 

Can you imagine the Stanley Cup being decided by a shootout? It makes me want to cry just thinking about it!

Although the NHL hockey playoffs do not use shootouts other non-North American professional leagues, and amateur leagues use shootouts in their playoffs. 

If you are watching the World Championships (Men’s or Women’s) or your child’s playoff game, after a brief overtime period to try and determine a winner the game will move onto a shootout if the game is still tied. 

It puts a defined ending to the game, which is good, but it is a heartbreaking way to lose, and, in my opinion, doesn’t ‘feel’ right! 

When do the playoffs start?

For the 2023-24 NHL season the NHL playoffs start on April 22nd.  

When do the hockey playoffs end?

The Stanley Cup playoffs end in the first or second week of June each year. 

Related Questions

How many games are in the first round? Are playoffs best of 5 or best of 7?

In the first round of the playoffs NHL rounds are the best-of-seven, and, therefore, have a maximum of 7 games. 

The first team who wins 4 games will win the series and move onto the next round. 

When did the NHL go to best of 7 games?

The NHL first round of the playoffs used to be the best of 5 games, but in 1986-87 the NHL introduced best of 7 game series. 

At that time the first round was called divisional semifinals as the team who finished fourth in the division played the team who finished fourth, and the second and third place teams would play each other.  

This was a welcomed change as the first round of the playoffs are so competitive and so much fun to watch – who wouldn’t want more of it?

What month are hockey playoffs? 

The Stanley Cup playoffs are played from mid-April to mid-June, thus making the playoff months April, May, and June. 

For the NHL 2022 season the playoffs will not start until May, due to the COVID pandemic playing havoc with the schedule. However, the last possible game of the Stanley Cup finals is June 30th so no games will stretch into July. 

Leave a Reply

Related Articles
Hockey Answered Secondary Logo

Welcome to Hockey Answered: a resource for anyone curious to learn & understand more about the great game of hockey.

I am a lifelong fan who grew up in a major market (Calgary), and I have played, coached, and watched a lot of hockey!

As my daughter began watching NHL games with me, I realized how many questions come up about the sport. Hockey Answered is full of, well, answers! If you are a new fan or lifelong enthusiast, I hope that you can enjoy hockey even more by learning something new around here.

How can we help?