The NHL Playoffs for Beginners

The playoffs have started and I’ve have noticed that there are a lot of people who want to watch but don’t really understand what is happening or how the playoffs work. I decided to sit down and write it all out in hopes to help that confused soul sitting on the couch cheering and yelling along thinking to themselves, “I have no idea what I am doing.”

Have no fear! Here is everything you need to know!

Which Teams End Up in Playoffs and How?

There are 16 teams that qualify for playoffs each season. The top three with the most amount of points in each division will take up 12 of the spots. The remaining four are Wild Cards. The Wild Card teams are the next two highest-placed teams in each conference (there are two conferences: Eastern and Western) which adds up to 16.

“But wait,” you say. “I’ve heard about Wild Cards and I don’t understand them.” Don’t worry, since the playoff format changed four years ago, people are still confused. So, Wild Cards are those remaining four teams that didn’t have enough points to make it into the top three but have claimed the fourth and fifth places in the standings.

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NHL Regular Season Eastern Conference Standings. Photo via

So here is an example. This is the Eastern Conference. The ‘x’ and ‘y’ shows who made it to the playoffs. The Metropolitan and the Atlantic are the divisions within the conference. The top three in the Atlantic division were Montreal (103 pts), Ottawa (98 pts), and Boston (95 pts). Toronto was the Wild Card (95 pts). You have probably noticed that Boston and Toronto were tied in points. The reason Boston claimed the third spot is because they had more regulation and OT wins than Toronto. The top three in the Metropolitan division were Washington (118 pts), Pittsburgh (111 pts), and Columbus (108 pts). NY Rangers (102 pts)  were the Wild Card.

Oh, That makes sense. But who plays who?

Let’s start with the easy part. The team with the second and third most points in their respective division will play each other. Then, the first place teams in each division will  play a Wild Card. The Wild Card team with the most points will play the No. 1 team with the lesser amount of points. Then, the Wild Card team with the lesser amount of points will play the No. 1 team with the most points. Let me try to explain with a visual example.

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My Bracket via

Here is my bracket. It shows the first round, second round, Conference Finals and the Stanley Cup Final. Focus on the Eastern Conference which is on the right side. Montreal, who has 103 points, is the second No.1 team as Washington had 118 points. So, Montreal is playing NY Rangers who is the number one Wild Card spot with 102 points as opposed to Toronto with 95 points. So that means that Washington is playing Toronto. Ottawa and Boston, the second and third teams in the Atlantic Division are playing each other. As well as Pittsburg and Columbus who are the second and third teams in Metropolitan Division. Then, if you look at the bracket, the winner of each series will move on to play the other series winners. So I have guessed that in the Pittsburg/Columbus series, Pittsburgh will win. In the Toronto/Washington series I have guessed that Toronto will win. So that means, if I am right, Toronto and Pittsburgh will play each other in the next round.

Cool. So how many games does each team have to win to move on?

It’s the best of seven. So a maximum of seven games can be played in each series. The team that reaches four wins first moves on.

So what’s the Stanley Cup (Sorry, I’m a true beginner!)

No worries! Everyone starts at square one. So the Stanley Cup is the trophy that is awarded to the winner of the final series. It has been around since 1892 but was originally called the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup. The Stanley part came from Lord Stanley of Preston who was the Governor General of Canada at the time. You can read all about the history here.

Andrew Shaw hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2013 via

I hope I have helped you navigate the Stanley Cup Playoffs and you won’t feel so lost when people bring it up in conversations or when you are watching a game with friends. Don’t be afraid to ask about things you don’t understand!

Leave a comment below if you are still confused or have other valuable information about playoffs that people should know.


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