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NHL Playoffs

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NHL Playoffs

For the 2013 playoffs, see 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Stanley Cup playoffs (French: Séries éliminatoires de la Coupe Stanley, pronounced: [seʁjez eliminatwaʁ də la kup stanli]) is an elimination tournament in the National Hockey League consisting of four rounds of best-of-seven series. Eight teams from each of the league's two conferences qualify for the playoffs based on regular season records. The final round is dubbed the Stanley Cup Finals, which matches the two conference champions.

The NHL has always used a playoff tournament to determine its champion. Its playoff system has changed over the years, from the league's inception in 1917 when ownership of the Stanley Cup was shared between different leagues, to when the NHL took over the Cup in 1926, to the current setup today.


Beginning in 2014 the first round of the playoffs, or Division Semifinals, consists of two match-ups in each division, based on the seedings (No. 1 vs. No. 4, No. 2 vs. No. 3). The top-ranked team in the conference plays the lower-ranked wild-card team; the other division winner plays the higher-ranked wild-card team (one or both wild-card teams may cross over to another division within the conference), while the next two seeds in each division play each other. In the second round, or Division Finals, the top remaining division seed plays against the lowest division seed. In the third round, the Conference Finals, the two division champions play each other, with the conference champions proceeding to the Stanley Cup Final.

For the first three rounds, the higher-seeded team has home-ice advantage (regardless of point record). In the Stanley Cup Final, it goes to the team with the better regular season record (regardless of 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").

From the 1981–82 season to the 1992–93 season, the playoff format was completely different. Each of the league's two conferences were divided into two divisions, and the top four teams in each division advanced to the playoffs. Also, instead of the top-ranked team playing the eighth-place team in the conference in the first round, the first-place team played the fourth-place team in each division, and the second-place team played the third-place team (the Division Semifinals). In the second round, the two winning teams in each first-round series would face each other for the divisional championship (the Division Finals). The divisional champions in each conference would play one another in the third round (the Conference Finals) for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. This structure was used for determining the teams in the playoffs in the American Hockey League until the 2011-12 season, when they changed the structure to the current NHL structure.


The National Hockey League has always used a playoff tournament to determine its champion, generally opening up its playoff games to a much larger number of teams, including those with a losing regular season record in some years (the most recent being the 7th and 8th seeded San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers, respectively, in 1999).

From the NHL's inception to 1920, when ownership of the Stanley Cup was shared between the NHL and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association the regular season was divided into two halves, with the top team from each half moving on to the league finals, which was a two-game total goals series in 1918 and a best-of-seven series in 1919. In 1920, the Ottawa Senators were automatically declared the league champion when the team had won both halves of the regular season. The two halves format was abandoned the next year, and the top two teams faced off for the NHL championship in a two-game total goals series.

At the time, the NHL champion would later face the winners of the PCHA and, from 1921, the Western Canada Hockey League in further rounds in order to determine the Stanley Cup champion. During this time, as the rules of the NHL and those of the western leagues differ (the main difference being that NHL rules allowed five skaters while the western leagues allowed six), the rules for each game in the Stanley Cup Finals alternated between those of the NHL and the western leagues. Before the WCHL competed for the Stanley Cup, the Stanley Cup Finals was a best-of-five series. Following the involvement of the WCHL, one league champion was given a bye straight to the finals (a best-of-three affair starting in 1922), while the other two competed in a best-of-three semifinal. As travel expenses were high during these times, it was often the case that the NHL champions were sent west to compete. In a dispute between the leagues in 1923 about whether to send one or both western league champions east, the winner of the PCHA/WCHL series would proceed to the Stanley Cup Finals while the loser of the series would face the NHL champions, both series being best-of-three.

In 1924 the NHL playoffs expanded from two to three teams (with the top team getting a bye to the two-game total goal NHL finals), but because the first-place Hamilton Tigers refused to play under this format, the second and third place teams played for the NHL championship in a two-game total goals affair. The Stanley Cup Finals was returned to the best-of-five format the same year.[1]

NHL takes control of Stanley Cup

With the merger of the PCHA and WCHL in 1925 and its collapse in 1926, the NHL took sole control of the Stanley Cup, and from this point the NHL playoffs and the Stanley Cup playoffs are considered synonymous. The NHL was subsequently divided into the Canadian and American divisions until the 1927–28 season. For 1927, six teams qualified for the playoffs, three from each division, with the division semifinals and finals being a two-game total goals affair and the Stanley Cup Finals a best-of-five affair. In 1928, the playoff format was changed so that the two teams with identical division ranking would face each other (i.e. the first place teams played each other, the second place teams play each other, and likewise for the third place teams). The first place series was a best-of-five affair, with the winner proceeding to the best-of-three Stanley Cup Finals, while the others was a two-game total goals series. The winner of the second and third place series played each other in a best-of-three series, with the winner earning the other berth to the Stanley Cup Finals. This format had a slight modification the following year, where the semifinal series became a two-game total goals affair and the Stanley Cup Finals became a best-of-five series. The two-game total goals format was abolished in 1937, with those series being changed to best-of-three affairs.[2]

Original Six era

The 1930s saw the reduction of teams from 10 to 7, and with it an end to the Canadian and American divisions. The Stanley Cup playoffs saw the first and second place teams play against each other in a best-of-seven series for one berth in the Stanley Cup Finals, while the third to sixth place teams battled in a series of best-of-three matches for the other berth (with the third place team battling the fourth place team, and the fifth place team against the sixth place team). The playoff format introduced in the 1938–39 season had a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Finals, which still stands today.[2]

The 1942–43 season saw the removal of the New York Americans, and thus the six remaining teams formed the Original Six. During this era, the playoff format went unchanged, with the first and third place teams battling in one best-of-seven semifinal, while the second and fourth place teams battled in the other best-of-seven semifinal. During this time, Detroit Red Wings fans often threw an octopus onto the ice as a good luck charm, as eight wins were required to win the Stanley Cup.[2]

Expansion era

The Modern Era expansion saw the number of teams double from six to twelve in the 1967–68 season, and with it the creation of the Western and Eastern Conferences. The playoff format remained largely the same, with all series remaining best-of-seven, and the Western and Eastern Conference champions battling for the Stanley Cup. The 1970–71 season, because of fan demand, brought forth the first interconference playoff matchup outside of the Stanley Cup Finals since the pre-war expansion, which had the winner of the 2 vs 4 matchup in one conference take on the winner of the 1 vs 3 matchup in the other conference for a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. The following year had one minor change to its playoff format: a stronger team would face a weaker opponent. Thus, instead of a 1 vs 3 and 2 vs 4 matchup in the first round, the first round had a 1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3 matchup. This practice of having stronger teams facing weaker opposition would continue to the present day.[2]

The 1974–75 seasons saw another change to its playoff system to accommodate the league of now 18 teams, 12 of which qualified for postseason berth. The top team from each division would earn byes to the Stanley Cup quarterfinals, while the second and third place teams from each division started their playoff run from a best of three preliminary round. In each round of the playoffs, the teams remaining were seeded regardless of divisional or conference alignment, with the preliminary-round series being a best-of-three affair while the remainder of the series remained best-of-seven. The 1977–78 season had one minor change in its playoff format: although the second place finishers from each division would qualify for the preliminary round, the four playoff spots reserved for the third-place teams were replaced by four wild-card spots—spots for the four teams with the highest regular-season point total but which did not finish first or second in their divisions.[2]

NHL-WHA merger

With the absorption of four teams from the World Hockey Association in the 1979–1980 season, a new playoff system was introduced where 16 of the league's 21 teams would qualify for postseason play. The four division winners would qualify for the playoffs while twelve wildcard positions rounded out the sixteen teams. At the beginning of each round the teams were seeded based on their regular season point totals, with the preliminary round being a best-of-five series while all other playoff series were best-of-seven.[2]

Divisional playoffs

The 1981–1982 season brought forth the return of divisional matchups, with the top four teams from each division qualifying for the postseason play. Division champions would be determined, followed by the Conference champions, who would meet in the Stanley Cup Finals. The division semifinals was a best-of-five affair until the 1986–87 season, when it became a best-of-seven series, while all other series remained best-of seven.[2]


The 1993–94 season brought forth the change in the playoff format that would result in a format close to the one being used today. The league revamped its playoff structure to become conference, rather than division-based. Eight teams in each conference qualified for the playoffs. The division first-place teams were seeded first (the team with the best record in the conference) and second in the conference playoffs and received home ice advantage for the first two rounds. The next best six teams in each conference also qualified and were seeded 3 through 8. All teams played in the first round: 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, 4 vs. 5. All series were best-of-seven, but the arrangement of home games was changed for Central and Pacific division teams. Instead of the normal 2–2–1–1–1 rotation, a series involving teams from both divisions was 2–3–2, with the higher seeded team having the option of starting play at home or on the road. After each round, surviving teams were reseeded to play a conference semi-final, then a conference final. The conference winners played each other for the Stanley Cup in the Finals. Home ice advantage was determined by higher seed in the first 3 rounds and by regular-season points of the two teams in the Stanley Cup Finals.[2]

In 1998–99 the league was re-organized into two conferences of three divisions apiece, resulting in the playoff format used thru 2013. The qualifiers remained sixteen, but the seeding changed. The three first-place teams in each division qualified and were seeded first through third for the playoffs. Of the other teams in each conference, the top five finishers qualified for the fourth through eighth seedings. All teams played in the first round: 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, 4 vs. 5 by those criteria. After each round, surviving teams were reseeded to play a conference semi-final, then a conference final. The conference winners played each other for the Stanley Cup in the Finals. Home ice advantage was determined by higher seed in the first 3 rounds and by regular-season points of the two teams in the Stanley Cup Finals.[2]

2013 realignment

The NHL will realign into a four-division, two-conference system for the 2013–14 season. Under the new postseason system, the top three teams in each division will make the playoffs, with 2 wild-cards in each conference (for a total of 8 playoff teams from each conference). The format will be division based, similar to the 1981–82 system. In the first round, the top ranked team in the conference plays against the lower ranked wild-card, while the other division winner plays against the higher ranked wild-card. The second and third place teams in each division will then play each other. The first round winners will then meet in the second round, the Divisional Finals. The third round will still consist of the Western Conference Finals and Eastern Conference Finals.[3]

Traditions and trends

Compared to other major professional sports leagues, playoff upsets are relatively common in the NHL.[4] According to NHL broadcaster Darren Eliot, this is because the style of competition in the playoffs is different from the regular season: instead of playing different teams every night, the goal is to advance through four best-of-seven playoff series.[5] The Presidents' Trophy winner may have to go through other playoff clubs who might have a hotter goaltender, a better defensive team, or other players that pose matchup problems. If the regular season champion's primary success was only outscoring others, they may be out of luck facing goaltenders that can shut them out.[5]

It is the reality of the sport. If your particular strength happens to be that you're really good offensively, and you come up against a hot goaltender and a team that is stout defensively, it might not matter that you were good on a nightly basis scoring goals. And that one particular opponent: you'll have to beat them four times.

NHL broadcaster Darren Eliot explaining the lack of success of Presidents' Trophy winners winning the Stanley Cup.[5]

The Stanley Cup playoffs MVP award, the Conn Smythe Trophy is based on the entire NHL postseason instead of just the championship game or series, although in its history the trophy has never been given to someone that was not in the finals, unlike the playoff MVP awards presented in the other major professional sports leagues of the United States and Canada (the Super Bowl MVP, the NBA Finals MVP, and the World Series MVP). Doug Gilmour and Peter Forsberg, in 1986 and 1999, respectively, are the only players who have topped the postseason in scoring without making it to the Finals.

NHL players have often grown beards when their team is in the playoffs, where they do not shave until their team is eliminated or wins the Stanley Cup. The tradition was started in the 1980s by the New York Islanders.[6][7]

At the conclusion of a postseason series, players and coaches line up and exchange handshakes with their counterparts on the opposing team, and this has been described by commentators as "one of the great traditions in sports".[8] However, there have been rare occasions that individual players have refused to participate, such as Gerry Cheevers who left the ice without shaking hands with any of the Flyers in 1978,[9] Billy Smith who avoided handshakes as he was particularly passionate about losses, and in 1996 when several Detroit Red Wings players protested the dirty hit by the Colorado Avalanche's Claude Lemieux.[10]

It is common among players to never touch or hoist the Prince of Wales Trophy (Eastern Conference champion) or Clarence S. Campbell Bowl (Western Conference champion) after they have won the conference finals; the players feel that the Stanley Cup is the true championship trophy and thus it should be the only trophy that they should be hoisting. There have been two recent exceptions to this – Scott Stevens of the Devils in 2000 and 2003 and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins in 2009. In both of those cases, their teams went on to win the Stanley Cup. In recent years, the captain of the winning team poses (usually looking solemn) with the conference trophy, and sometimes, the entire team poses as well.[11]

There are many traditions and anecdotes associated with the championship trophy, the Stanley Cup.

See also

  • List of NHL playoff series


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