How Do The NHL Playoffs Work?

nhl playoff format

At the end of each NHL regular season, the best teams from each conference compete against one another for the legendary Stanley Cup. This annual postseason tournament has its own unique format that defines the most thrilling event in professional hockey. Read on to learn all about how the NHL Playoffs work.


Eight teams from each of the NHL’s two conferences qualify for the NHL Playoffs for a total of 16 teams. The following teams make the playoffs:

  • The top three teams in points in each of the four divisions qualify.
  • Out of the remaining teams, the top two teams in each conference in terms of points qualify as wild cards, regardless of divisional affiliation.

Therefore, there is a possibility that anywhere from three to five teams can make the NHL Playoffs from a single division.


The NHL Playoffs follow a four round structure, with each round being decided by a best-of-seven series. For the first round, the top three qualifying teams from each division and one wild card compete against one another, and the two winning teams advance to the second round. The winners of the second round move on to the Conference Finals, and the two Conference Final winners advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The seven-game series in the NHL Playoffs follow a 2-2-1-1-1 format in terms of home ice advantage. The first two games are played at the higher seed’s home, while the following two games will feature the lower seed as the home team. Then, the teams alternate home ice advantage for the fifth, sixth, and seventh games, if necessary.


The first round matchups in the NHL Playoffs for each conference are as follows:

  • Series 1: Division A Winner #1 vs Wild Card #2
  • Series 2: Division B Winner #2 vs Wild Card #1
  • Series 3: Division A Runner Up vs Division A Third Place
  • Series 4: Division B Runner Up vs Division B Third Place

After the conclusion of the first round, the winner of Series 1 will play the winner of Series 3 in the Divisional Round, while the winners of Series 2 and Series 4 will play. The winners in the Divisional Round face off in the Conference Finals.

Overtime Rules

Ice Hockey NHL Post Season Overtime

The only rules that distinguish an NHL regular season game from a playoff game are the overtime rules. Similar to overtime in the regular season, the first goal scored in overtime ends the game. However, instead of the regular season format, which features one five-minute three-on-three overtime period followed by a shootout, the NHL Playoffs feature continuous 20-minute five-on-five overtime periods.

Unlimited 20-minute overtime periods will be played until a winner is determined. The shootout is not used in the NHL Playoffs.


What are the NHL Playoffs?

The NHL Playoffs are a postseason tournament that occurs at the end of every NHL season. During the NHL Playoffs, the top three qualifying teams from each division and two wild cards from each conference compete against one another in four best-of-seven series. The winner of the tournament is declared that season’s champion and wins the Stanley Cup.

How many games are in an NHL Playoff series?

There are four rounds in the NHL Playoff series, each consisting of a best-of-seven series. This means that a maximum of 56 games are played every NHL Playoff series. This also means that the winning team must play between 16 and 28 games to win the Stanley Cup.

How does the wild card work in the NHL Playoff series?

Wild cards are additional teams, outside of the top three divisional teams, who qualify for the NHL Playoff series. The two teams from each conference, regardless of division, who have the highest points total out of the remaining teams qualify and are declared the wild cards for the season.