Spring is upon us, which can only mean one thing: Stanley Cup playoffs!
I love playoff hockey as much as the next person, but I’ve got an extra special reason to love it this year: we named our puppy after the Stanley Cup!
I’ll be the first to admit that the road to the Stanley Cup playoffs is confusing, to say the least.
So I’m here to break down how teams get to playoffs, and how they win the Stanley Cup.
Conferences & Divisions
The first thing to understand is the conference and division setups. There are two conferences in the NHL, and two divisions within each conference. Here’s the breakdown of which teams are in which division:
The Stanley Cup playoff bracket has the Western Conference on one side and the Eastern Conference on the other. So the only time a team from the West plays a team from the East during the playoffs is during the Stanley Cup Finals. (But they play each other regularly throughout the season, before playoffs.)
Therefore, teams don’t compete against teams from the other conference for a playoff spot. They do, however, compete against teams from their conference, both in their division and in the other division.
Here’s where it gets confusing.
Starting with the 2013-2014 season, the NHL changed up the format that decides which 16 teams get into playoffs.
Eight teams are selected from each conference. The top three teams from each division are selected. Then, two additional teams are selected regardless of division based on who has the highest number of points, excluding the top three teams from each division.
Let’s look at the standings of the Eastern Conference for an example. This bracket is current as of 9 p.m. on Sunday, March 29, 2015:
So (if the Stanley Cup playoffs were to start today) the top three teams from the Atlantic and Metro Divisions are selected. After those teams, the top two teams, regardless of division, are also selected. In this case, the Washington Capitols of the Metro Division and the Boston Bruins of the Atlantic Division are selected.
The same is done with the Western Conference, making a total of 16 teams selected.
But wait, how are the rankings decided?
They’re decided by points. But in this case, points doesn’t mean points scored in a game. Points are acquired throughout the season based on wins, losses, and overtime losses.
A team gets two points if they win, one point if they lose in overtime, and no points if they lose in regulation.
Those points are added up throughout the season, and teams are ranked by the number of points.
If two teams have the same number of points, the team with more regulation and overtime wins (ROW) gets the higher ranking. So, if a team won in a shootout, which comes after a 5-minute overtime, that game doesn’t count to the ROW total.
Setting Up the First Round
So, once the rankings are finalized and we know which teams are going to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, how are the first-round match-ups selected?
Well, as stated before, the two conferences only meet in the final round. So the first round consists of games between teams from the same conference.
The second- and third-place teams from each division play each other, and the first place teams from each division play one of the wild card teams. The division winner with more points plays the wild card team with fewer points.
Let’s look at the Eastern Conference example again.
If the Stanley Cup playoffs started today, Tampa Bay would play Detroit, and the New York Islanders would play Pittsburgh. That’s because those teams are second- and third-place teams in their divisions.
For the other two sets of games, Montreal would play Boston, because Montreal has more points than the New York Rangers and Boston has fewer points than Washington. The New York Rangers would then play Washington.
How the Rounds Work
After the first round is all set up, it gets pretty easy to understand. Each match-up plays to the best of seven games. The first team to win four games advances to the next round.
So, if Tampa Bay plays Detroit and Detroit wins the first four games in a row, Detroit moves onto the second round. If, however, Detroit wins the first three but loses the fourth, they would need to win at least one more game to move onto the second round.
This setup continues throughout the bracket until a Stanley Cup winner is chosen!
Will you be watching the Stanley Cup playoffs this year? Who do you think will win it?