How to read the NHL standings?

When following any new sport, it is important to figure out how to read the standings of the primary league, and following the NHL is no different. The standings can be confusing at first, but with a little knowledge they are quite straightforward.

The purpose of the NHL standings is to show which team, at any given moment, is in a position to make the Stanley Cup playoffs. The most important aspect of the standings is how many points each team has represented by the ‘P’ or ‘PTS’.  Each team is battling to be one of the teams who has earned enough points by the end of the season to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Let’s look at how you can read the standings to figure this out.

The NHL point system: Qualifying for the Playoffs

The regular season in the NHL is all about getting enough points to qualify to make the Stanley Cup playoffs. As teams look at their place in the standings, the main question they are asking is: are we in a playoff position or not?

How does the point system work?

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A team does not qualify for the playoffs by getting a certain number of points, but instead by being one of the top point earners in the conference. 16 teams from the league (of the 31 total teams) will make the playoffs: 8 from each conference.

To help us determine if your team is in the playoffs or not vs. other teams, we need to learn two different things about the standings:

  1. What all of the symbols mean at the top of the standings
  2. How each of the teams is grouped into conferences, divisions and wild cards in the standings, and how that determines if your team is high enough in the standings to qualify for the playoffs

What is with all of the names and symbols in the standings?

Above are the symbols that are used in the standings on Let’s go over all of them:

GP – Games Played. This is how many games the team has played so far in the season. Each team plays 82 games total over the season.

W – Wins. This is how many games the team has won in the season. Each win is worth two points.

L – Losses. This is how many games the team has lost in the season.

OT – Overtime/Shootout losses. If a team loses in overtime or a shootout they will still get one point in the standings.

PTS – Points. This is the cumulative amount of points that the team has earned from their games. Again, the team gets 2 points for a win and 1 point for an overtime/shootout loss.  

ROW – Regulation plus Overtime Wins. This is the cumulative total of games that have been won by a team in regulation and overtime. The stat gives more weight to teams who win games through regulation time and overtime, and less weight to a win through a shootout. The ROW is used as a tiebreaker between teams who have an equal number of points in the standings.

GF – Goals For. This is the total number of goals that the team has scored in the season.

GA – Goals Against. This is the total number of goals that the teams has allowed in over the season.

DIFF – Goal Differential. This is the total number of goals scored by the team subtracted by the total number of goals scored against.

HOME – Home record. Each team plays 41 games at home during the season and this is the team’s record at home. The three numbers represented are Wins-Losses-OT, for example 20-10-3, which translates to 20 wins, 10 losses, and 3 overtime/shootout losses.

AWAY – Away record. The record of the team when they are playing away from their home rink.

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Two examples of how to calculate the points for a team’s record

Let’s take the win loss/record of 20-10-3:

  • 20 Wins: 2 points each for: 40 points
  • 10 Loses: 0 points
  • 3 Overtime/shootout loses: 1 point each for: 3 points
  • Total: 40+0+3 = 43 points

Let’s try one more with a win loss/record of 32-22-7:

  • 32 Wins: 2 points each for 64 points
  • 22 Loses: 0 points
  • 7 Overtime/shootout loses: 1 point for each for 7 points
  • Total: 64+0+7= 71 points  

Who is in the playoffs and who is not?

Again, there are only 16 of the 31 teams that make the playoffs. Each conference provides 8 playoff spots: the first 6 are comprised of the top 3 point-earning teams in each division. The last 2 spots are for wild cards: the top point-earners in the conference beyond each division’s top 3.

Note: During the 2020-21 season there is no wildcard playoff spots and the top 4 teams in the division will make the playoffs. As well, there is no cross-division play – the first two rounds of the playoffs will be within the respective division.

Here’s how to read & understand the stats sheets:

A typical standings table will show the NHL teams in one of four ways: League, Conference, Division or Wild Card. In determining who is in the playoffs and who is not, the Wild Card version is the most important.

League — This is a list of all the NHL teams in order of their point totals from greatest to least. It has no bearing on how teams are placed in the playoffs, and may be most useful to see who is at the bottom in helping to determine placement in the NHL draft.

Conference — This version divides the teams into their respective conferences: Eastern and Western. Now, to reach the Stanley Cup finals, you have to beat out the teams in your conference to get there, but this version of the standings does not give a definitive answer as to who you would be playing if the playoffs started today.

Division — This version of the standings divides the NHL teams into their four respective divisions: Metropolitan, Atlantic, Central, and Pacific. This is more relevant because the top 3 in each division will make it to the playoffs. The winner of each division gets one of the two top seeds in their conference in the playoffs. The second and third place teams in a division will end up meeting in round one of the playoffs.

Wild Card – This view of the standings is a combination of the Division and Conference standings. The view shows the top three teams in each of the two divisions within the conference. The rest of the conference is then placed under the divisions in a wild card race for the final spots to make the playoffs. The top two point leaders in the wild card race qualify for the playoffs and play the two division winners.

Let’s take a look at the final standings of the Western Conference for the 2018-2019 standings to help clarify how to read it:

  1. Each conference is broken into three parts
  2. The two divisions are broken out with only the top three teams in the division represented
  3. The remainder of the teams in the conference who are not in the top three spots in the division are placed in the Wild Card portion of the standings
  4. The top team in each division will play one of the wild card teams.
  5. The teams who finish 2nd and 3rd place in the division will play each other in the first round of the playoffs
  6. The division winner with the most points will play the wild card with the least amount of points.
  7. The Wild Card winners are the two teams with the most amount of points of the remaining 10 teams in the conference who did not place in the top 3 division slots.
  8. Any ties in the standings in points will be settled by who has the most ROW points. Remember this is whichever team has won the most games in regulation and overtime and does not include the shootout.

Let’s apply these rules to the standings above for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

  1. Calgary is a division winner and has the most points (107) so they will play the Wild Card team with the least amount of points (90), Colorado
  2. Nashville is also a division winner and plays the other Wild Card team, Dallas, that had the higher amount of points of the two Wild Card teams
  3. In the Central Division, Winnipeg and St. Louis finished 2nd and 3rd respectively, so they will play each other in the first round
  4. In the Pacific Division, San Jose and Vegas finished 2nd and 3rd respectively, so they will play each other in the first round.
  5. All of the teams below Dallas and Colorado miss the playoffs because they have not gained enough points

So the first round of the Western Conference playoffs would look like this:

  • Calgary vs Colorado
  • San Jose vs Vegas
  • Nashville vs Dallas
  • Winnipeg vs St. Louis

Back to the standings table above: What do those letters by the cities names mean?

Z– it means it has clinched the conference (and their division title) and will finish first in the conference

Y– it means it has clinched their division title and will finish first in the division

X– it means the team has clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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There you go, now you can read the NHL standings! Remember that as you watch your team throughout the season, the standings will change a lot. Teams can go on a winning or losing streak and in a couple of weeks be in a very different position. Enjoy the rollercoaster ride that is an NHL season!

One Response

  1. This was soo informative, well written, easy to apply, and made someone like me who really enjoys watching hockey come to better understand each and every abbreviation and vocabulary word associated with the game. Thank you, Sir!

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