Playoff Bracket Structure

The NHL and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) established rules for the playoffs as part of the League realignment following the 2013 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Here are some simplified guidelines to help fans understand how it works.

According to the NHL, this is how it breaks down:

Only 16 teams will qualify for the playoffs.

The League establishes brackets for each of the four divisions- Metropolitan and Atlantic (Eastern Conference) and the Central and Pacific (Western Conference). The winner of each round is determined by a best of seven structure.

“The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season record and regardless of division. It is possible for one division in each conference to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends just three.” (NHL)

From that point it becomes more complicated and more controversial. The system is based on brackets and those brackets determine which teams play each other in each round. Players and fans have long contended that the distribution of the teams based on the format is unbalanced.

First Round (Divisional Semifinals)

Home ice advantage* is given to the first place team “that placed higher in the regular-season standings.” This team is also awarded the Presidents’ Trophy for their accomplishments and will maintain home ice advantage through all four playoff rounds.

  • The first place team in the Conference will play the team in the second place of the wild card.
  • The other division team in the lead will play the first place wild card winner.
  • The teams in the number two and three spot in each division play each other.
  • Wild card teams may end up playing across divisional lines- part of the controversy.
  • At least one of the top three teams will be eliminated- part of the imbalance to the seeding.
  • The Capitals played, and beat the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2018 and advanced to the next round. The Caps were the Metro Div Number One team while the CBJ were in the number one wild card slot. Caps won the round 4-2.
  • Second Round (Divisional Finals)

    Home ice advantage again is given “to the team that placed higher in the regular-season standings.”

    • First round winners in the bracket will then play each other.
  • The Caps then played rival Pittsburgh Penguins and successfully beat them, advancing past the second round for the first time in many years! The round was won in the sixth game 4-2.
  • Third Round (Conference Final)

    This round determines which teams will advance to the Stanley Cup Final Round. The top two conferences teams will fight it out to advance. Winners of this round are awarded trophies: the Prince of Wales to the Eastern Conference winner and Clarance S. Campbell to the Western Conference winners. There is a long-standing tradition that players do not touch those trophies when awarded for fear of jinxing the final round outcome.

    Next to the Caps faces the Tampa Bay Lightning and after a hard-fought round, advanced to meet the Vega Golden Knights. This round went seven games for a 4-3 Caps win.

    Stanley Cup Final Round

    The winners of each conference now play each other.The Stanley Cup is awarded to the team that is the first team to win four games, out of seven possible games.

    The Caps went on to beat the Knights in Las Vegas and to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.

    Final Round NHL Trophies

    The Stanley Cup is the championship trophy awarded annually to the NHL playoff winner.

    The Conn Smythe Trophy is an annual award given to the most valuable player for his team in the playoffs. The winner is selected by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association at the conclusion of the final game in the Stanley Cup Final.

    * Home ice advantage is given to the team that had the best regular season record in the league. This becomes important for the teams because they will begin the final round first on their ice and with their fan base. The first two games are at home. The second two games shift to the home of the other teams. Games five, six, and seven then alternate between the teams. Should the round go to a seventh game, that game would be played in the arena of the team with home ice advantage.