The NHL playoffs feature some of the most exciting hockey you’ll see each year. The playoffs are actually called the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This makes the NHL playoffs the only North American professional league sport playoffs to be named after the prize trophy.
That’s because the Stanley Cup existed before the NHL.
But enough with the sports trivia – you’re here to learn how the Stanley Cup playoffs work now.
We’re going to go over two different formats for the Stanley Cup playoffs – what they’d normally look like, and what they look like in 2021. We expect that the format will go back to how it used to be in 2022, but only time will tell.
When do they take place?
The Stanley Cup playoffs take place, of course, once the regular season has concluded. Normally, this means the playoffs start after 81 games – in 2021, teams are only playing 56 games.
Normally, this means that the playoffs run from mid-April to sometimes around early-to-mid June. In 2021, however, the playoffs are slated to run from around May 11th to (at the latest) July 15th.
NHL bracket format
Let’s discuss how the NHL bracket usually works – we’ll address changes to the bracket in the last section of this article.
The NHL is divided into conferences, which are further divided into divisions. Normally, the three highest placed teams from each division at the end of the regular season are qualified for the playoffs.
There are also two wildcards from each conference – these are the two teams that have the most points outside of the 6 teams who qualify normally. These teams can come from the same division.
This makes for a total of 8 teams in each conference who qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The bracket is then divided by division. In the First Round, the winner of each division plays against a wildcard, while the second and third seeded teams of each division play each other.
In the Second Round, the winners of the First Round play each other. This format continues to the Stanley Cup finals. The semi-final rounds are Conference Final – teams from the Eastern and Western Conferences don’t play against each other until the Stanley Cup Finals.
How many rounds are there in the NHL playoffs?
The contests in the Stanley Cup playoffs are best of 7. This means that there are a minimum of 60 total games and a maximum of 105 total games played in the playoffs, over the course of 4 rounds (First Round, Second Round, Conference Finals, and Stanley Cup FInals).
These rounds are played in a 2-2-1-1-1 format. This means the first 2 games are played on one team’s home ice, the next 2 games are played at the other team’s home ice, then home ice is rotated for the next 3 games. This gives home ice advantage to one team, who, if the maximum number of games are played, gets home ice one extra time.
In the first two rounds, the highest seed gets home ice advantage. In the final two rounds, the team with the highest regular season points total gets home ice advantage.
How the 2021 NHL playoffs will be different
The 2021 playoffs are going to look a bit different. Instead of the regular divisions, the League was divided into Central, East, West, and North Divisions.
There are no wildcards this year – the top 4 teams in each division qualify. The lowest seeded team will play against the highest seeded team in the same format as usual for the first two rounds. Because there are no wildcards, these rounds are intra-divisional – at the end of the first two rounds, there will be 4 division champions.
There is no Conference Final this year – a division champion can play any other division champion. That means the Maple Leafs could play against the Golden Knights while the Capitals play the Hurricanes in the semi-finals. We could end up with two Eastern or two Western teams in the Stanley Cup Finals. Almost anything can happen.
Uncertainty surrounds home-ice advantage for Canadian teams (who are all in the North division). When the semi-finals and Stanley Cup Finals occur, it’s unclear how border restrictions will affect the movement of Canadian teams. It’s possible that all teams will have to be played on one team’s home ice – we’ll have to wait and see.
Kyle covers the Stanley Cup Playoffs
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