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The path to greatness: Breaking down the NHL playoff format

The NHL playoff format can confusing to even the most experienced of fans. To help untangle some of the mystery, Dan Morse explains the process.

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St Louis Blues v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The NHL playoffs are nearly upon us. Whether you’re a die-hard hockey fan or brand new to the sport, you should be getting very excited. Playoff hockey is one of the best events in sports, and it ends with the presentation of the coolest trophy in sports. Don’t believe me? I dare you to find a man happier than Mark Messier being presented the Stanley Cup in 1994.

Whether you’re a more casual hockey fan, or you’re having your interest in the sport reinvigorated with the news of a likely expansion team coming to Seattle, you may be unaware of a somewhat new playoff system in the NHL. In 2013, the league underwent a major overhaul with respect to the divisions and conferences. Prior to that year, there were six divisions in the NHL, each with five teams. In 2013, the league realigned to four divisions: the Pacific and Central in the Western Conference, the Metropolitan and the Atlantic in the Eastern Conference. The realignment left 16 teams in the East while the West was home to only 14. It’s almost as though the league was planning to introduce two new teams in the West in the near future...

But even before a team moves here, there is still playoff hockey to be played between the uneven conferences. The NHL playoffs feature 16 teams, eight from each conference. The top three teams in each of the four divisions earn a playoff berth. The current expansion team in Las Vegas resides in first place right now in the Pacific division, practically a lock to be the first expansion team since 1968 to make the playoffs in its inaugural season.

St Louis Blues v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The last four teams in the playoffs are the wild card teams. Each conference sends two wild card teams to the playoffs. The two best teams in terms of record that lie outside the top three in their division earn a wild card spot. With this setup it is possible for one division to send five teams to the playoffs while the other division from that same conference sends only three. In fact, if the season ended today, that would be the case in both conferences. In the West, the top three teams from the Central and Pacific divisions would earn a playoff spot, and the next two best teams in the Western Conference happen to be Dallas and Colorado, both from the Central division. In the East, Columbus and New Jersey currently have a hold of the wild card spots, which would be the fourth and fifth team from the Metropolitan division to make the playoffs.

Once in the playoffs, every team starts on equal ground. There’s no bye in the first round, no wild card game. Each team needs to win four consecutive best-of-seven series to win a championship. No matter where you finish at the end of the year, it will always take 16 wins in the playoffs before you can hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. The only thing left to decide is the path each team needs to take to get there. So how do we decide playoff matchups?

Let’s start with the Western Conference. The division winner with the best record, which would currently be the Central’s Nashville Predators, plays against the worse of the two wild card teams from that same conference, currently the Colorado Avalanche. The other division winner, likely the expansion Vegas Golden Knights(!), would play the wild card team with the better record. Today that’s the Dallas Stars. The second and third seed from within each division face off against each other to round out the last two first-round matchups in the West. Right now, that would pit San Jose against in-state rival Anaheim, and Winnipeg would face Minnesota.

Stanley Cup Finals

The Eastern Conference is decided in the same fashion. We would see Atlantic division leader Tampa Bay play New Jersey. The second place Bruins, despite having a better record than the Metropolitan leading Washington Capitals, would still have to play against the third-place divisional rival Toronto Maple Leafs. Washington, by way of winning their division, would play the wild card Columbus Blue Jackets, leaving us with another in-state rivalry of Philadelphia versus Pittsburgh to round out round one.

Once all the seeding is set, we get to watch the best hockey of the year. The winner of the second vs third seed series moves on to play either their own division winner or the wild card team that upsets them. The winner of that series then goes on to play against the winner of the other divisional series within their conference for the right to represent their conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. It is in the Finals, and only in the Finals, that we see the East play against the West to find out which team reigns supreme.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are one of the longest playoffs in pro sports. It’s always a best of seven series. It is within these seven-game series that rivalries are born, where fuel is added to the fire. Some of the best rivalries in hockey, even all of sports, come into their own when two teams play against each other every other night for as long as two weeks. It’s a long, brutal stretch that could potentially take up to 28 games to capture the Cup, which amounts to an extra third of a season. It’s here where you see guys like Peter Forsberg playing practically until their spleen ruptures just to make sure they get their chance to raise that Cup above their heads and have their name enshrined on it forever.