NHL Playoff Format

nhl playoff format

The NHL playoffs are an exciting event for hockey fans all over. Similar to many other sports playoffs, the NHL usually uses a bracket system to organize its playoff games. Due to the unprecedented times in 2020, the NHL playoffs began in August instead of April and the format was changed accordingly.

Qualifying for the Playoffs

There are 24 teams that have the chance to qualify for the playoffs. The top four teams in each conference, the Eastern and Western Conferences, play one another one time each to determine their seeding from 1 to 4. Therefore, there are six games per conference to determine the top 4 seeds. This is known as a "round robin seeding tournament."

Below the top 4 seeds, there are eight teams from each conference competing against one another to qualify for the playoffs. The teams are matched up based on their given seeds entering the qualifying round. As a result, the number 5 seeded team plays against the number 12 seeded team, the 6 seed plays the 11 seed, the 7 seed plays the 10 seed, and the 8 seed plays the 9 seed. Each series is played to a best of five games, with the first team to win three games advancing to the playoffs. At the end of this round, the winning four teams from each conference (total of eight teams) advance to compete against the top four seeded teams in each conference.

The First Round

Once the qualifying round of the playoffs concludes, there are 16 remaining teams that play in the official first round. Unlike the NHL playoffs in the past, the highest seeded teams play the lowest seeded teams. Therefore, the 1 seeded team plays the number 8 seeded team, the 2 seed plays the 7 seed, the 3 seed plays the 6 seed, and the 4 seed plays the 5 seed in each conference. From the first round on, all of the teams compete in a series that is played to the best of seven games. Therefore, the teams that win four games first in each series advance to the next round of the playoffs.

The Second Round

Unlike previous years, the winners of each round will be reseeded after the first and second rounds. Therefore, the teams that play one another after each round depends on how each team is seeded.

After the first round, four teams from each conference advance to the second round. Similar to the first round, the highest remaining seed will play the lowest remaining seed. From both conferences, the number 1 seed faces the 4 seed while the number 2 seed will face the 3 seed.

Conference Finals

After the second round finishes, the two teams that won their respective series from each conference will advance to the Conference Finals round. This round is also a series of best out of seven games, with the team who wins four games first winning. There will be one champion from each conference and these two teams will go on to the Stanley Cup final.

Stanley Cup Final

Following the Conference Finals, the two winning teams advance to face one another in the Stanley Cup Finals. Like the previous rounds, the series is played to the best of seven games. The first team that earns four wins is awarded the Stanley Cup.


What are the rules for overtime in the NHL qualifying round?

The overtime rules differ between the games played in the round robin tournament and the qualifying games that are played in a best-of-five series. For the round robin tournament games, the overtime and shootout rules are the same as regular season games. However, for the qualifying games, the overtime rules adhere to playoff standards. This means that there are no shootouts and that the first team to score in the extended overtime wins the game.

Which NHL teams qualified for the playoffs in 2020?

In the Eastern Conference, the Canadiens, Hurricanes, Islanders, and Blue Jackets won their qualifying series. The Canadiens received the 8 seed, the Blue Jackets the 7 seed, the Islanders the 6 seed, and the Hurricanes the 5 seed. In the Western Conference, the Blackhawks, Coyotes, Flames, and Canucks qualified. The Blackhawks received the 8 seed, the Coyotes the 7 seed, the Flames the 6 seed, and the Canucks the 5 seed.

What seeds did the round robin teams receive in 2020?

In the Eastern Conference, the Flyers won all three games while the Bruins lost all three. Therefore, the Flyers received the 1 seed, Lighting the 2 seed, Capitals the 3 seed, and Bruins the 4 seed. In the Western Conference, the Golden Knights won the most games while the Blues won the least. As a result, the Golden Knights received the 1 seed, Avalanche the 2 seed, Stars the 3 seed, and Blues the 4 seed.

How does seeding differ from a bracket system?

In past years, the NHL used a bracket system in the playoffs whereas this year, the league is using a seeding system. In a bracket system, teams play each other based on where they are placed in the bracket and originally seeded. However, in the seeding system, each round the highest seeded team will play the lowest seeded team in each conference while the second highest seeded team will play the second lowest seeded team and so on.