Season structure of the NHL
The structure of the National Hockey League (NHL) season is divided into the regular season and the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the regular season, which generally runs from early October through early April, teams play 82 games which determine their standings. The eight top-seeded teams in each conference enter the playoff elimination tournament to determine the Stanley Cup champion.
Regular season 
Each team in the NHL plays 82 regular season games, 41 games at home and 41 on the road. In all, 1230 games are played.
In the 2008–2009 season, the NHL regular season reverted to the format used before the 2004–05 Lockout, where each team plays six games (three at home, three away) against the other teams in its division (a total of 24 games). Teams play all ten non-divisional teams in their own conference four times (twice at home, twice away, 40 total games). The remaining 18 games of the season are inter-conference play, allowing every team in the league to play every other team at least once. Each team plays 12 teams from the other conference once and plays the other three non-conference teams both home and away. If a non-conference team is played only once, next year's schedule will include at least one game between the same two teams at the opposite venue. The schedule is structured so that every NHL team plays in every arena at least once every two years.
For the six Canadian teams in the league prior to 2011-2012, the extra three inter-conference games were always against the three Canadian teams in the other conference. This ensured that all Canadian teams played home and away against their Canadian non-conference opponents each season, and each of the non-conference U.S. teams once per year. For the American teams, the extra three games are rotated each season between the twelve non-conference U.S. opponents in a way designed to ensure each U.S. team will play five regular season games against each U.S. team in the other conference over a four season cycle (two games in one of the seasons and one game in each of the other three seasons). Following the 2011 relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, the league decided not to alter the season structure for the following season, meaning that the new Winnipeg Jets are still being treated as a U.S. Eastern Conference team for the purposes of the 2011-12 schedule.
The season is typically divided approximately in half by the NHL All-Star Game and its accompanying festivities, during which no regular season games take place.
Two points are awarded for a win (including in overtime or shootout), one point for a loss in overtime or shootout, and no points for a loss in regulation time. If, however, a team pulls their goaltender for an extra attacker during overtime and gives up an empty net goal, the point normally awarded for losing in overtime is forfeited. Pulling a goaltender in overtime was occasionally attempted in certain situations prior to the 2004–05 NHL lockout near the end of a season if earning a single point in overtime would have been worthless for playoff qualification purposes, but with the introduction of the shootout it has not been attempted since.
|Intra-Division||6 games × 4 opponents||24|
|Non-divisional, in conference||4 games × 10 opponents||40|
|Inter-conference||1 game × 12 opponents + 2 games × 3 opponents||18|
Stanley Cup playoffs 
At the end of the regular season, 16 teams, the top eight from each conference, qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, an elimination tournament consisting of three rounds of best-of-seven series to determine which team from each conference will advance to the final round, dubbed the Stanley Cup Final.
The teams are seeded one through eight in each conference. The teams that finish with the most points in each division are crowned the division champions, and are seeded one through three based on their point records. The next five teams with the best records in the conference are seeded four through eight. In the event of a tie in points standings, the highest-ranking team is determined using the following tiebreaking procedures:
- The fewer number of games played (only used during the season, as all teams will have played 82 games once the season is over).
- The greater number of games won. Starting in the 2010-11 NHL season, shootout wins are not included in the tie-breaking procedure.
- The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs.
- The greater differential between goals for and against during the entire regular season.
The first round of the playoffs, or Conference Quarterfinals, consists of four match-ups in each conference, based on the seedings (No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6, and No. 4 vs. No. 5). In the second round, or Conference Semifinals, the top remaining conference seed plays against the lowest remaining seed, and the other two remaining conference teams pair off (unlike the NBA, for example, where the 1–8 winner always plays the 4–5 winner, regardless of who wins). In the third round, the Conference Finals, the two remaining teams in each conference play each other, with the conference champions proceeding to the Stanley Cup Final.
For the first three rounds, the higher-seeded team has home-ice advantage (regardless of point record). In the Stanley Cup Final, it goes to the team with the better regular season record. The team with home-ice advantage hosts Games 1, 2, 5 and 7, while the opponent hosts Games 3, 4 and 6 (Games 5–7 are played "if necessary").
2013–14 realignment 
On December 5, 2011, an NHL Board of Governors meeting, partially about realignment for the League, took place in Pebble Beach, California. This potential realignment was discussed there and a new structure of the entire League was announced, consisting of 4 divisions based on geography; 2 of those divisions have 7 teams, the others have 8 teams. This new structure was to be in place for the 2012-13 season. However, late in the evening on January 6, 2012, the NHLPA rejected the realignment, pushing any realignment plan until at least the 2013-14 season.
Following further negotiations between the league and the NHLPA, a revised realignment plan was released in February 2013 which would move the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets to the Eastern Conference and the Winnipeg Jets to the Western Conference. On March 7, 2013 the NHLPA announced their approval of the plan and on March 14, 2013 the Board of Governors approved the realignment. The realignment will be in place for the 2013-2014 season.
Along with the realignment will come a change in the playoff format. The top three teams in each division will earn automatic berths, the next two teams in the conference will earn wild-card spots. The new Divisional Playoffs will pit the top ranked team in the conference against the lower ranked wild-card and the other division winner against the higher ranked wild-card. The second and third place teams in each division will play each other. The first round winners will meet in the second round or Division Championship. The Western Conference (A vs. B) and Eastern Conference (C vs. D) Finals will determine who faces off in the Stanley Cup Finals.
See also 
- List of the most frequent NHL playoff series
- National Hockey League rivalries
- List of NHL franchise post-season appearance streaks
- List of NHL franchise post-season droughts
- McCarthy, Dave, ed. (2008). The National Hockey League Official Guide & Record Book/2009. Dan Diamond Associates. ISBN 978-1-894801-14-0.
- Associated Press (November 30, 2007). "NHL teams will play each other at least once per season". ESPN (ESPN.com).
- "NHL Official Rules: Rule 84 - Overtime".
- "Governors adopt radical realignment plan". NHL.com. Retrieved 2011-12-07.
- "NHL delays realignment after NHLPA refuses consent". NHL.com, 2012-01-06. NHL.com. Retrieved 2012-01-07.