The season structure of the National Hockey League (NHL) is divided into the regular season and the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the regular season, which generally runs from early October through early April, teams play 82 games which determine their standings. The three highest-placed teams in each division and two wild card teams per conference enter the playoff elimination tournament to determine the Stanley Cup champion.

Regular seasonEdit

Since the 1995–96 season, each team in the NHL plays 82 regular season games, 41 each of home and road. In all, 1,271 games are scheduled (480 of them inter-conference).

Since the 2017–2018 season, the NHL regular season formula was adjusted to account for the new conference alignments. Each team plays either four or five games against the other teams in its division (a total of 26 or 29 games in the Western Conference, 28 games in the Eastern Conference) as well as playing all non-divisional teams in their own conference thrice (21 or 24 games in the west, 24 games in the east). The remaining games of the season are inter-conference play (32 in the west, 30 in the east), allowing every team in the league to play every other team twice. One Western Conference exception is that one team from each division plays one less game inside Division and one more game inside Conference but outside their Division. Teams rotate every season. The schedule is structured so that every NHL team plays in every arena at least once per season. The San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche played each other 4 times in 2013–14 and 2015–16, but only twice in 2014–15 and 2016–17 in favour of 5 games against all their divisional opponents.

The NHL All-Star Game and its accompanying festivities occur near the midpoint of the season, during which no regular season games take place. Every four years, from 1998 onwards (except for 2018), in lieu of an All-Star break, there is usually a break for the Olympic Winter Games.

The league also schedules a three day Christmas break when no regular season games are played on either Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Games are not played on December 26 unless it falls on a Saturday, of which no games would be played on December 23. The NHL also has a holiday roster freeze between December 18 and 27, in which in most cases, players cannot be traded, waived, or sent to the minor leagues.[1]

Two points are awarded for a win (including in overtime or shootout), one point for a loss in overtime or shootout, and no points for a loss in regulation time. If, however, a team pulls their goaltender for an extra attacker during overtime and gives up an empty net goal, the point normally awarded for losing in overtime is forfeited.[2] Pulling a goaltender in overtime was occasionally attempted in certain situations prior to the 2004–05 NHL lockout near the end of a season if earning a single point in overtime would have been worthless for playoff qualification purposes, but with the introduction of the shootout it has not been attempted since.

Western Conference Eastern Conference
Pacific Division Central Division Atlantic Division Metropolitan Division
Anaheim Ducks Chicago Blackhawks Boston Bruins Carolina Hurricanes
Arizona Coyotes Colorado Avalanche Buffalo Sabres Columbus Blue Jackets
Calgary Flames Dallas Stars Detroit Red Wings New Jersey Devils
Edmonton Oilers Minnesota Wild Florida Panthers New York Islanders
Los Angeles Kings Nashville Predators Montreal Canadiens New York Rangers
San Jose Sharks St. Louis Blues Ottawa Senators Philadelphia Flyers
Vancouver Canucks Winnipeg Jets Tampa Bay Lightning Pittsburgh Penguins
Vegas Golden Knights Toronto Maple Leafs Washington Capitals
Eastern Conference
Division Schedule Total Games
Within Division 4 games × 7 opponents 28
Within Conference, Non-divisional 3 games × 8 opponents 24
Inter-conference 2 games × 15 opponents 30
Central Division
Division Schedule Total Games
Within Division 4 games × 4 opponents + 5 games × 2 opponents 26
Within Conference, Non-divisional 3 games × 8 opponents 24
Inter-conference 2 games × 16 opponents 32
Pacific Division
Division Schedule Total Games
Within Division 4 games × 6 opponents + 5 games × 1 opponent 29
Within Conference, Non-divisional 3 games × 7 opponents 21
Inter-conference 2 games × 16 opponents 32

Stanley Cup playoffsEdit

Main article: Stanley Cup playoffs

At the end of the regular season, 16 teams qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, an elimination tournament consisting of three rounds of best-of-seven series to determine which team from each conference will advance to the final round, dubbed the Stanley Cup Final. The top three teams in each division earn automatic berths (6 teams per conference) and the next two teams in the conference earn wild-card spots. The First Round pits the top ranked team in the conference against the lower ranked wild-card and the other division winner against the higher ranked wild-card. The second and third place teams in each division play each other. The top ranked team in a division, along with its wild card opponent and the second and third ranked teams of the same division comprise a group or bracket during the First Round, and the two winners will meet in the Second Round. The Western Conference (Pacific vs. Central divisional bracket champions) and Eastern Conference (Atlantic vs. Metropolitan divisional bracket champions) Finals will determine who faces off in the Stanley Cup Finals.[3]

Any ties in the standings are broken using the following protocols:

  1. The fewer number of games played (only used during the season, as all teams will have played 82 games once the season is over).
  2. The greater number of games won. Since the 2010–11 NHL season, shootout wins are excluded from the tie-breaking procedure, and is reflected by the ROW statistic (regulation/overtime wins).
  3. The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs.
    1. If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, the points earned and available in the first game played in the city of the club that had the greater number of home games in games between the two are not included.
    2. 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 "odd" games are identical to those mentioned in the previous paragraph, that is, the first game in the city of the club that has had more home games in games between each club in the tie. Note that, because of this procedure, if two teams in the multi team tie (also applicable in a two team tie) have only played once against each other, the points earned in that game are not included.
  4. The greater differential between goals for and goals against during the entire regular season.
  5. If two clubs are still tied on non-shootout wins, points earned between the tied clubs and regular season goal differential, a one-game playoff is played under Stanley Cup playoff rules.[4]

For example, on Saturday December 2, during the 2017-2018 season, the Chicago Blackhawks earned a point and the Minnesota Wild gained two in their respective games that evening, and thus became tied at 29 points with the Calgary Flames. None of these at the time were in the top three ranks of their divisions, so although the Flames were from the Pacific division and the others from the Central, they were ranked together among the other wild card teams in the Western Conference, occupying the third through fifth seeds for the wild card spots. These three, apart from having equal points, had at the time played the same number of games, 26, and had the same number of ROWs,12. The Blackhawks had played twice thus far in the season against the Wild, the first being a home game loss in regulation time, and the other being a road game win also in regulation time, but no games against the Flames. The Wild, however, had played once in Calgary against the Flames, not long after their first win against the Blackhawks on the road. Since that was the Flames' one and only game with the Wild, which therefore was a surplus of home games for the Flames in games against the Wild at the time, it was not included in the available points percentage used to determine their ranking at the time, and because they had not yet played the Blackhawks, they were therefore considered to have 0% of points available against the clubs in the tie. The points earned and available in that game by the Wild against the Flames were also not considered for their available points percentage either, but because they had played an even number of home and road games against the Blackhawks, points from both of those games were considered, and having obtained 2 out of the 4 available, they were therefore reckoned to have 50% of available points against teams in the draw. The Blackhawks likewise, having no games against the Flames were considered to have the same 50% point percentage of available points in games between the clubs in that tie. As a result, the Flames were ranked the lowest among those three clubs, and given the fifth rank among the wild card teams, while the other two, still being tied at points percentage, were compared by their goal differentials, the Blackhawks having +11 and the Wild +1, thus the Chicago club was ranked third and the Wild fourth.

For the first two rounds, the higher-seeded team has home-ice advantage (regardless of point record). Thereafter, it goes to whoever has the better regular season record (no matter the seeding). The team with home-ice advantage hosts Games 1, 2, 5 and 7, while the opponent hosts Games 3, 4 and 6 (Games 5–7 are played "if necessary").

See alsoEdit


  • (2008) in McCarthy, Dave: The National Hockey League Official Guide & Record Book/2009. Dan Diamond Associates. ISBN 978-1-894801-14-0. 
  1. Whyno, Stephen. "NHL’s holiday roster freeze tradition lets players breathe easy", Associated Press, Toronto Star, December 22, 2017. Retrieved on December 26, 2017. 
  2. NHL Official Rules: Rule 84 - Overtime.
  3. NHL realignment includes four divisions, wild card teams. Retrieved on 2013-07-03.
  4. Stanley Cup Playoffs format, qualification system. (April 6, 2018). Retrieved on April 7, 2018.

External linksEdit

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