The National Hockey League (NHL) season is divided into the regular season and the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the regular season, teams play 82 games which determine their standings. The eight top-seeded teams in each conference enter the playoff elimination tournament to determine the Stanley Cup champion.
Teams play 40 games against the ten opponents in the other divisions of their own conference (two home and two road games against each), and 32 games against the other four teams in their own division (four home and four road games against each). Teams play 10 games against teams in the opposite conference: One game at home against each of the five teams in one division in the opposite conference, and one game on the road against each of the five teams in another division in the opposite conference. Teams will not play the five teams in the third division of the opposite conference in a particular season. The interconference division matchups rotate each season. The last two Stanley Cup Finals featured teams that did not meet during the regular season, the 2006 Stanley Cup Finalists: the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes did not play during the 2005-06 regular season and neither did the 2007 Stanley Cup Finalists: the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators did in the 2006-07 regular season.
The season is typically divided approximately in half by the NHL All-Star Game and its accompanying festivities, during which no regular season games take place.
At the end of the regular season, 16 teams, eight from each conference, qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The teams are seeded one through eight in each conference. The teams that finish with the most points in each division are crowned the division champions, and are seeded one through three based on their point records. The next five teams with the best records in the conference are seeded four through eight. In the event of a tie in points in the standings, ties are broken using the following tiebreaking procedures: The higher ranked team is the one with:
- The fewer number of games played. (Only used during the season, as all teams will have played 82 games once the season is over.)
- The greater number of games won.
- The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs.
- The greater differential between goals for and against for the entire regular season.
Stanley Cup playoffs
The Stanley Cup playoffs is an elimination tournament consisting of four rounds of best-of-seven series. The first three rounds determine which team from each conference will advance to the final round, dubbed the Stanley Cup Finals. The winner of that series becomes the NHL/Stanley Cup champion. The most recent Stanley Cup playoffs are the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The first round of the playoffs, or Conference Quarterfinals, consists four matchups in each conference, based on the seedings (1-8, 2-7, 3-6, and 4-5). In the second round, or Conference Semifinals, the top remaining conference seed plays against the lowest remaining seed, and the other two remaining conference teams pair off (unlike the NBA, for example, where the 1-8 winner always plays the 4-5 winner, regardless of who wins). In the third round, the Conference Finals, the two remaining teams in each conference play each other, with the conference champions proceeding to the Stanley Cup Finals.
For the first three rounds, the higher-seeded team has home-ice advantage (regardless of point record). In the Stanley Cup Finals, it goes to the team with the better regular season record. The team with home-ice advantage will host games 1, 2, 5 and 7, while the opponent hosts games 3, 4 and 6 (games 5-7 are played "if necessary").
Before the 1993-94 season, the format was completely different. The top four teams in the divisions got in the playoffs. And instead of the top team playing the 8th place team, in the conference, the first place team played the fourth place team in their division. The second place team then played the third place team. After that round the winner from the 1-4 series would face the winner of the 2-3 series. The winner would then go on to play the winner of the other division in their respective conference. This structure is still used for determining the teams in the playoffs in the American Hockey League.
The decision to radically change the regular season schedule after the lockout by drastically reducing interconference play has proven controversial. The NHL has received complaints from clubs that are unable to play traditional rivals in the opposite conference in the regular season. Notably, the placement of the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks in the West has distanced these clubs from rivalries with the other Original 6 teams, since they are in the Eastern conference. In general, there are several recurring criticisms of the schedule:
- The five teams from the opposite conference that a team won't play each year (on a three year rotating cycle)
- That home fans will only have each opposite conference team visit their arena once every three years.
- The frequency of games against the same teams. While many rivalries exist within NHL divisions, some teams will face eight games a season against teams that fans might not be particularly eager to see, with several of these games often played in the span of a couple of weeks.
- The unbalanced schedule created by 32 of 82 games being intra-division. It is argued that a good team in a weaker division will have an easier schedule than if it were in a strong division, making it easier to make the playoffs, win their division, and consequently, rank higher.
During the 2006-07 season, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that he will keep the current format for the 2007–08 season, thus allowing for at least one full rotation since the system was put into place.
However, it is rumored that another major NHL re-alignment is on the way for 2008. Several alternate formats (for the league and the schedule) have been suggested:
- Re-alignment into two conferences of two divisions each instead of the current three, with the divisions roughly aligned on the basis of standard time zones. It has been further proposed that the top two teams in each division would automatically qualify for the playoffs, with the second place teams being awarded the third and fourth seeds. 
- Re-alignment into four conferences, with the six Canadian teams placed in one conference and three eight-team conferences created for the U.S. teams. The conferences may or may not be further split into divisions under such a format. Reducing the conferences' size would allow for teams to play home and away against each inter-conference opponent while still allowing for several games against each intra-conference opponent.
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