The Stanley Cup playoffs is an elimination tournament in the National Hockey League (NHL) consisting of four rounds of best-of-seven series. Eight teams from each of the two conferences qualify for the playoffs based on regular season points totals. The final round is commonly known as the Stanley Cup Finals which sees the two conference champions play for the Stanley Cup. The NHL has always used a playoff tournament to determine its champion. Its playoff system has changed over the years from the league's inception in 1917 when ownership of the Stanley Cup was shared between different leagues to when the NHL took over the Cup in 1926 to the current setup today.
The Stanley Cup playoffs consists of four rounds of best-of-seven series. Each series is played in a 2–2–1–1–1 format, meaning the team with home-ice advantage hosts games 1, 2, 5 & 7 while their opponent hosts games 3, 4 & 6 with games 5–7 being played if needed. Eight teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. In the playoff series format instituted in 2014, the first, second, and third place team in each of the four divisions qualify for the playoffs automatically. Two additional teams from each conference (regardless of divisional alignment) also qualify for the playoffs by having the highest point totals out of the remaining teams in the conference. These teams are referred to as the Wild Cards. Since there is no attention paid to divisional alignment with the wild cards, it is possible for one division in each conference to have five teams in the postseason while the other has just three.
In the First Round, the eight teams are split into two separate brackets by division. Each bracket consists of the top three divisional qualifiers and one of the wild cards. The lower seeded wild card plays against the division winner with the best record while the other wild card plays against the other division winner and both wild cards are de facto #4 seeds. The other two series match the second and third place teams from the divisions.
The winners of both First Round series advance to the Conference Semifinals. The reseeding in the previous format, which ensured the top seed would play the lowest remaining seed, the two best teams in the conference cannot meet until the conference finals at the earliest, was discarded.
The winners of these series advance to the Conference Finals and the winners there move to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In the first two rounds, the higher-seeded team has home-ice advantage (regardless of point record).
Thereafter, it goes to the team with the better regular season record (regardless of seeding); in case of a tie, the league's standard tie-breaking procedure is applied.
The team with home-ice advantage hosts games one, two, five & seven while the opponent hosts games three, four & six (games five through seven are played if necessary).
Any ties in the standings at the end of the regular season are broken using the following protocols:
- The greater number of games won. Starting in the 2010-11 NHL season, shootout wins are not included in the tie-breaking procedure.
- The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs.
- If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, the points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game are not included.
- If more than two clubs are tied, the higher percentage of available points earned in games among those clubs, and not including any "odd" games, are used to determine the standing.
- The greater differential between goals for and against during the entire regular season.
Emergence of the NHL
The National Hockey League was founded in November 1917 as a successor to the NHA. From the NHL's inception until 1920, both NHL and PCHA teams were eligible for the Stanley Cup. The NHL inherited the NHA's regular season system of dividing it into two halves, with the top team from each half moving on to the league finals. The NHL finals was a two-game total goals series in 1918 and a best-of-seven series in 1919. In 1920, the Ottawa Senators were automatically declared the league champion when the team had won both halves of the regular season. The two halves format was abandoned the next year, and the top two teams faced off for the NHL championship in a two-game total goals series.
At the time, the NHL champion would later face the winners of the PCHA and, from 1921, the Western Canada Hockey League in further rounds in order to determine the Stanley Cup champion. During this time, as the rules of the NHL and those of the western leagues differ (the main difference being that NHL rules allowed five skaters while the western leagues allowed six), the rules for each game in the Stanley Cup Finals alternated between those of the NHL and the western leagues. Before the WCHL competed for the Stanley Cup, the Cup championship series was a best-of-five series. Following the involvement of the WCHL, one league champion was given a bye straight to the finals (a best-of-three affair starting in 1922), while the other two competed in a best-of-three semifinal. As travel expenses were high during these times, it was often the case that the NHL champions were sent west to compete. In a dispute between the leagues in 1923 about whether to send one or both western league champions east, the winner of the PCHA/WCHL series would proceed to the Stanley Cup Finals, while the loser of the series would face the NHL champion, both series being best-of-three.
In 1924 the NHL playoffs expanded from two to three teams (with the top team getting a bye to the two-game total goal NHL finals), but because the first-place Hamilton Tigersrefused to play under this format, the second and third place teams played for the NHL championship in a two-game total goals affair. The Stanley Cup Finals returned to a best-of-five format the same year.
NHL takes control of Stanley Cup
With the merger of the PCHA and WCHL in 1925 and the merged league's collapse in 1926, the NHL took de facto control of the Stanley Cup. While the Cup would not be formally deeded to the league until 1947, from 1926 onward the NHL playoffs and the Stanley Cup playoffs are considered synonymous. The NHL was subsequently divided into the Canadian and American divisions for the 1927–28 season. For 1927, six teams qualified for the playoffs, three from each division, with the division semifinals and finals being a two-game total goals affair, and the Stanley Cup Finals becoming a best-of-five series. In 1928, the playoff format was changed so that the two teams with identical division ranking would face each other (i.e. the division winners played each other, the second place teams play each other, and likewise for the third place teams). The first place series was a best-of-five affair, with the winner proceeding to the best-of-three Stanley Cup Finals, while the others were a two-game total goals series. The winner of the second and third place series played each other in a best-of-three series, with the winner earning the other berth to the Stanley Cup Finals. This format had a slight modification the following year, where the semifinal series became a two-game total goals affair and the Stanley Cup Finals became a best-of-five series. The two-game total goals format was abolished in 1937, with those series being changed to best-of-three affairs.
Original Six Era
The 1930s saw the reduction of teams from ten to seven, and with it an end to the Canadian and American divisions. The Stanley Cup playoffs saw the first- and second-place teams play against each other in a best-of-seven series for one berth in the Stanley Cup Finals while the third- to sixth-place teams battled in a series of best-of-three matches for the other berth (with the third-place team taking on the fourth-place team, and the fifth-place team against the sixth-place team). In 1939, the Stanley Cup Finals became a best-of-seven series, the format still used today.
The 1942–43 season saw the removal of the New York Americans, leaving six remaining teams (known today as the "Original Six"). Throughout this era, the first and third-place teams played in one best-of-seven semifinal, while the second and fourth-place teams played in the other best-of-seven semifinal. During this time, Detroit Red Wings fans often threw an octopus onto the ice as a good luck charm as eight wins were required to win the Stanley Cup.
The 1967 expansion saw the number of teams double from six to twelve in the 1967–68 NHL season and with it the creation of the Western and Eastern divisions. The playoff format remained largely the same, with all series remaining best-of-seven, and the division champions battling for the Stanley Cup. The 1970-71 NHL season (because of fan demand), brought forth the first inter-conference playoff matchup outside of the Stanley Cup Finals since the pre-war expansion, which had the winner of the second-place versus fourth-place matchup in one conference take on the winner of the first- versus third-place matchup in the other conference for a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. The following year had one minor change to its playoff format: a stronger team would face a weaker opponent. Thus, instead of a first-place versus third-place and a second versus fourth-place matchup in the first round, the first round had the first-place versus the fourth and the second versus the third-place. This practice of having stronger teams facing weaker opposition has continued to the present day.
The 1974-75 NHL season saw another change to its playoff system to accommodate the league of 18 teams, twelve of which qualified for the playoffs. The top team from each division would earn a bye to the quarterfinal, while the second- and third-place teams from each division started their playoff run from a best-of-three preliminary round. In each round of the playoffs, the teams remaining were seeded regardless of divisional or conference alignment with the preliminary-round series being a best-of-three affair while the remainder of the series remained best-of-seven. The 1977-78 NHL season had one minor change in its playoff format: although the second-place finishers from each division would qualify for the preliminary round, the four playoff spots reserved for the third-place teams were replaced by four wild-card spots—spots for the four teams with the highest regular-season point total that did not finish first or second in their divisions.
With the absorption of four teams from the World Hockey Association (WHA) in the 1979–1980 season, a new playoff system was introduced where 16 of the league's 21 teams would qualify for postseason play. The four division winners would qualify for the playoffs while twelve wildcard positions rounded out the sixteen teams. At the beginning of each round the teams were seeded based on their regular season point totals, with the preliminary round being a best-of-five series while all other playoff series were best-of-seven.
The 1981-82 NHL season brought forth the return of divisional matchups with the top four teams from each division qualifying for the playoffs. The division champions would be determined, followed by the Conference champions, who would meet in the Stanley Cup Finals. The division semifinals was a best-of-five affair until the 1986-87 NHL season when it became a best-of-seven series, while all other series remained best-of seven.
For the 1993-94 NHL season, the league revamped its playoff structure to become conference-based rather than division-based. Eight teams in each conference qualified for the playoffs. The division first-place teams were seeded first (the team with the best record in the conference) and second in the conference playoffs and received home ice advantage for the first two rounds. The next best six teams in each conference also qualified and were seeded third through eighth. All teams played in the first round: first-place versus eighth, second versus seventh, third versus sixth and fourth versus fifth. All series were best-of-seven, but the arrangement of home games was changed for Central and Pacific division teams. Instead of the normal 2–2–1–1–1 rotation, a series involving teams from both divisions was 2–3–2, with the higher seeded team having the option of starting play at home or on the road (many teams with home-ice advantage chose to play the default 2-2-1-1-1 format, from 1995-1998). After each round, surviving teams were reseeded to play a conference semi-final, then a conference final. The conference winners then played each other in the Stanley Cup Finals. Home ice advantage was determined by higher seed in the first three rounds and by regular-season points of the two teams in the Stanley Cup Finals.
In 1998–99, the league was re-organized into two conferences of three divisions apiece, resulting in the playoff format used through 2013. The qualifiers remained sixteen, but the seeding changed. The three first-place teams in each division qualified and were seeded first through third for the playoffs. Of the other teams in each conference, the top five finishers qualified for the fourth through eighth seedings. All teams played in the first round: first-place versus eighth, second versus seventh, third versus sixth and fourth versus fifth, by those criteria. After each round, surviving teams were reseeded to play a conference semi-final, then a conference final. Like the 1994–1998 system, the conference winners then played each other in the Stanley Cup Finals and home ice advantage was determined by higher seed in the first three rounds and by regular-season points of the two teams in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The NHL realigned into a four-division, two-conference system for the 2013–14 NHL season.
Under the new postseason system, the top three teams in each division make the playoffs, with two wild-cards in each conference (for a total of eight playoff teams from each conference).
The format is division-based, similar to the 1981–82 system.
In the conference quarterfinals, the top-ranked team in the conference plays against the lowest-ranked wild-card, while the other division winner plays against the higher ranked wild-card. The second and third place teams in each division then play each other. The conference quarterfinal winners then meet in the conference semifinals.
The third round will still consist of the Western Conference and Eastern Conference Finals with those conference winners advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Traditions & Trends
Compared to other major professional sports leagues, playoff upsets are relatively common in the NHL.
According to NHL broadcaster Darren Eliot, this is because the style of competition in the playoffs is different from the regular season: instead of playing different teams every night, the goal is to advance through four best-of-seven playoff series.
The Presidents' Trophy winner may have to go through other playoff clubs who might have a hotter goaltender, a better defensive team or other players that pose matchup problems.
If the regular season champion's primary success was only outscoring others, they may be out of luck facing goaltenders that can shut them out. And although rare, another aspect is that the NHL leads the other leagues in Game 7 comebacks.
Only four instances has an NHL team been able to come back from being down 0–3 to win a seven-game series: the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1975 New York Islanders, the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers and the 2014 Los Angeles Kings. There has been only one such "reverse sweep" comeback in the MLB Playoffs (the 2004 Boston Red Sox) and none in the NBA playoffs.
The Stanley Cup playoffs MVP award, the Conn Smythe Trophy is based on the entire NHL postseason instead of just the championship game or series, unlike the playoff MVP awards presented in the other major professional sports leagues of the United States and Canada (the Super Bowl MVP, the NBA Finals MVP and the World Series MVP), although in its history the trophy has never been given to someone that was not in the finals.
NHL players have often grown beards when their team is in the playoffs, where they do not shave until their team is eliminated or wins the Stanley Cup. The tradition was started in the 1980s by the New York Islanders and is often mirrored by the fans, as well.
At the conclusion of a playoff series, players and coaches line up and exchange handshakes with their counterparts on the opposing team and this has been described by commentators as "one of the great traditions in sports".
However, there have been rare occasions that individual players have refused to participate such as Gerry Cheevers who left the ice without shaking hands with any of the Flyers in 1978 and Billy Smith, who avoided handshakes as he was particularly passionate about losses.
More recent examples of players refusing the handshake include the 1996 playoffs when several Detroit Red Wings players protested the dirty hit by the Colorado Avalanche's Claude Lemieux and in the 2008 playoffs when Martin Brodeur refused to shake Sean Avery's hand after Avery screened him in an earlier game.
It is common among players to never touch or hoist the Prince of Wales Trophy (Eastern Conference champion) or Clarence S. Campbell Bowl (Western Conference champion) after they have won the conference finals; the players feel that the Stanley Cup is the true championship trophy and thus it should be the only trophy that they should be hoisting.
There have been two recent exceptions to this: Scott Stevens of the Devils in 2000 and 2003 and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins in 2009. In both of those cases, their teams went on to win the Stanley Cup.
In recent years, the captain of the winning team poses (usually looking solemn) with the conference trophy and sometimes, the entire team poses as well.
There are many traditions and anecdotes associated with the championship trophy, the Stanley Cup.
Because the Ice Hockey World Championships are held in the same time period as the Stanley Cup playoffs, the only NHL players who can participate in the former are those on NHL teams that have been eliminated from Stanley Cup contention.
This policy has been in place since a 1977 agreement between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation which allowed Team Canada to field a team in the World Championships after an-eight year absence.
Appearances By Active Teams
|Toronto Maple Leafs||65|
|Detroit Red Wings||63|
|New York Rangers||57|
|St. Louis Blues||39|
|Los Angeles Kings||28|
|New York Islanders||23|
|New Jersey Devils||22|
|San Jose Sharks||16|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||8|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||2|