How Does NHL Playoffs Work – Stanley Cup Format, Rules, and More


3 minutes

Last Updated: May 24, 2024

Scott Kostov

The 2024 NHL playoffs are inching closer, which means the stakes are getting higher. After a gruesome 82-game regular season, it’s time we start worrying about the NHL playoff structure. At least, if you’re not a fan of the worst NHL teams that is.

So how do NHL playoffs work? In this article, we’ll be going over the NHL playoff rules, how the Stanley Cup playoff format works, and everything related that might interest you. We’re hoping that some of the worst hockey injuries ever don’t repeat this postseason and that we get a fair fight throughout.

How Do NHL Playoffs Work

When Do NHL Playoffs Start?

The 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin on Saturday, April 20th, 2024. After the first 3 rounds, we’ll have the 2 conference representatives that will square up in the Stanley Cup Finals, kicking off on June 10.

How Many Teams Make NHL Playoffs?

Every year, 16 teams qualify for the NHL postseason and have a chance to lift the Stanley Cup. As usual, eight teams come from the Eastern Conference and another eight come from the Western Conference. 

In every conference, the top 3 teams from each division(Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central, Pacific) are guaranteed to make the NHL playoffs. The winners of the two divisions are guaranteed to hold the top 2 seeds. The last two playoff spots in each conference are assigned to the teams with the best records that still haven’t qualified.

These are usually the wild card teams and it doesn’t matter what division they are from, they just need to have the next-best record. So it can happen that one division has 5 teams while another has 3.

How Many Rounds in NHL Playoffs?

Much like the NBA playoffs, the NHL playoffs are composed of 4 rounds. These are named the First, Second, Conference Finals round and Stanley Cup Final. In round one, the top team in the conference takes on the weakest wild card team, while the other division winner battles against the stronger wild card team.

At the same time, the second and third seeds from both divisions square off against each other. In the second round, there is no reseeding. Winners from both series play against the other winners in their division.

Only in the Conference Finals do we see the best team from each division in a conference square up against each other. That way, any division can have a shot at the Stanley Cup. Either way, both conferences can have only one representative fight for the Stanley Cup.

How Many Games In NHL Playoff Series?

The NHL playoffs bracket is based on the system of first to 4 wins. This means that every series, no matter the round, can last a maximum of 7 games. Similarly to the NBA playoffs, every series is played in a 2–2–1–1–1 format.

Likewise, the team with the better record plays Games 1, 2, 5, and 7 with home-ice advantage, while its opponent hosts Games 3, 4, and 6. Only the first four games in the series are guaranteed, while Games 5, 6, and 7 are played if necessary.

NHL Playoff Overtime Rule Changes

While most of the ice hockey rules remain the same throughout the season, that doesn’t include overtime scenarios. While the rules of regulation remain the same for regular season and the postseason, the playoff overtime rules undergo major changes.

During regular season NHL matches, overtime consists of a five-minute, 3v3 sudden-death period. If neither team scores during the five-minute period the game goes into a shootout. If you’re unfamiliar with hockey terminology, let’s break it down.

In the regular season, when overtimes occur, the first team to score in the 5-minute period wins. If not, the shootout unfolds similar to soccer penalties, except, each team chooses 3 players that will try to score on the opponent goalie. These don’t count towards the official score so don’t try to bet on the highest scoring NHL game ever in the playoffs.

During the NHL Playoffs, it’s a different ball game. NHL Playoff overtime periods last 20 minutes, with 5 players on each team instead of 3 playing in a sudden-death scenario. If neither team scores during the first overtime period it will go to a second, then a third, and so on, until a team scores and the game ends. Penalty shootouts are not a thing in the NHL playoffs. 

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