Stanley Cup playoffs
The Stanley Cup playoffs is an elimination tournament in the National Hockey League consisting of four rounds of best-of-seven series. Eight teams from each of the league's two conferences qualify for the playoffs based on regular season records. The final round is dubbed the Stanley Cup Finals, which matches the two conference champions.
The NHL has always used a playoff tournament to determine its champion. Its playoff system has changed over the years, from the league's inception in 1917 when ownership of the Stanley Cup was shared between different leagues, to when the NHL took over the Cup in 1926, to the current setup today.
Eight teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. In the playoff series format instituted in 2014, the first, second, and third place team in each division qualify for the playoffs automatically. Two additional teams, regardless of divisional alignment, also qualify by having the best records among the remaining teams in the conference. These teams are referred to as the Wild Cards.
The first two rounds of the playoffs are referred to as the Divisional Playoffs. The eight teams are split into two separate brackets by division. Each bracket consists of the top three divisional qualifiers and one of the wild cards. The lower seeded wild card plays against the division winner with the best record while the other wild card plays against the other division winner, and both wild cards are de facto #4 seeds. The other two series match the second and third place teams from the divisions. Since there is no attention paid to divisional alignment with the wild cards, it is possible for a division to produce both wild cards.
The winners of both Divisional Semifinal series advance to the Divisional Final. The reseeding in the previous format, which ensured the top seed would play the lowest remaining seed, was discarded. The winners of these series advance to the Conference Finals, and the winners there move to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In the first two rounds, the higher-seeded team has home-ice advantage (regardless of point record). In the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final, it goes to the team with the better regular season record (regardless of seeding). The team with home-ice advantage hosts games one, two, five and seven, while the opponent hosts games three, four and six (games five through seven are played "if necessary").
The National Hockey League has always used a playoff tournament to determine its champion, generally opening up its playoff games to a much larger number of teams, including those with a losing regular season record in some years (the most recent being the seventh and eighth seeded San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers, respectively, in 1999).
From the NHL's inception to 1920, when ownership of the Stanley Cup was shared between the NHL and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association the regular season was divided into two halves, with the top team from each half moving on to the league finals, which was a two-game total goals series in 1918 and a best-of-seven series in 1919. In 1920, the Ottawa Senators were automatically declared the league champion when the team had won both halves of the regular season. The two halves format was abandoned the next year, and the top two teams faced off for the NHL championship in a two-game total goals series.
At the time, the NHL champion would later face the winners of the PCHA and, from 1921, the Western Canada Hockey League in further rounds in order to determine the Stanley Cup champion. During this time, as the rules of the NHL and those of the western leagues differ (the main difference being that NHL rules allowed five skaters while the western leagues allowed six), the rules for each game in the Stanley Cup Finals alternated between those of the NHL and the western leagues. Before the WCHL competed for the Stanley Cup, the Stanley Cup Finals was a best-of-five series. Following the involvement of the WCHL, one league champion was given a bye straight to the finals (a best-of-three affair starting in 1922), while the other two competed in a best-of-three semifinal. As travel expenses were high during these times, it was often the case that the NHL champions were sent west to compete. In a dispute between the leagues in 1923 about whether to send one or both western league champions east, the winner of the PCHA/WCHL series would proceed to the Stanley Cup Finals while the loser of the series would face the NHL champions, both series being best-of-three.
In 1924 the NHL playoffs expanded from two to three teams (with the top team getting a bye to the two-game total goal NHL finals), but because the first-place Hamilton Tigers refused to play under this format, the second and third place teams played for the NHL championship in a two-game total goals affair. The Stanley Cup Finals was returned to the best-of-five format the same year.
NHL takes control of Stanley Cup
With the merger of the PCHA and WCHL in 1925 and its collapse in 1926, the NHL took sole control of the Stanley Cup, and from this point the NHL playoffs and the Stanley Cup playoffs are considered synonymous. The NHL was subsequently divided into the Canadian and American divisions until the 1927–28 season. For 1927, six teams qualified for the playoffs, three from each division, with the division semifinals and finals being a two-game total goals affair and the Stanley Cup Finals a best-of-five affair. In 1928, the playoff format was changed so that the two teams with identical division ranking would face each other (i.e. the first place teams played each other, the second place teams play each other, and likewise for the third place teams). The first place series was a best-of-five affair, with the winner proceeding to the best-of-three Stanley Cup Finals, while the others were a two-game total goals series. The winner of the second and third place series played each other in a best-of-three series, with the winner earning the other berth to the Stanley Cup Finals. This format had a slight modification the following year, where the semifinal series became a two-game total goals affair and the Stanley Cup Finals became a best-of-five series. The two-game total goals format was abolished in 1937, with those series being changed to best-of-three affairs.
Original Six era
The 1930s saw the reduction of teams from ten to seven, and with it an end to the Canadian and American divisions. The Stanley Cup playoffs saw the first- and second-place teams play against each other in a best-of-seven series for one berth in the Stanley Cup Finals, while the third- to sixth-place teams battled in a series of best-of-three matches for the other berth (with the third-place team taking on the fourth-place team, and the fifth-place team against the sixth-place team). The 1939 playoffs saw the introduction of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final, the format still used today.
The 1942–43 season saw the removal of the New York Americans, leaving six remaining teams (known today as the "Original Six"). During this era, the playoff format went unchanged, with the first and third-place teams playing in one best-of-seven semifinal, while the second and fourth-place teams playing in the other best-of-seven semifinal. During this time, Detroit Red Wings fans often threw an octopus onto the ice as a good luck charm, as eight wins were required to win the Stanley Cup.
The 1967 expansion saw the number of teams double from six to twelve in the 1967–68 season, and with it the creation of the Western and Eastern Conferences. The playoff format remained largely the same, with all series remaining best-of-seven, and the Western and Eastern Conference champions battling for the Stanley Cup. The 1970–71 season, because of fan demand, brought forth the first inter-conference playoff matchup outside of the Stanley Cup Finals since the pre-war expansion, which had the winner of the second-place versus fourth-place matchup in one conference take on the winner of the first- versus third-place matchup in the other conference for a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. The following year had one minor change to its playoff format: a stronger team would face a weaker opponent. Thus, instead of a first-place versus third-place and a second versus fourth-place matchup in the first round, the first round had the first-place versus the fourth and the second versus the third-place. This practice of having stronger teams facing weaker opposition has continued to the present day.
The 1974–75 season saw another change to its playoff system to accommodate the league of 18 teams, twelve of which qualified for the playoffs. The top team from each division would earn a bye to the quarterfinal, while the second- and third-place teams from each division started their playoff run from a best-of-three preliminary round. In each round of the playoffs, the teams remaining were seeded regardless of divisional or conference alignment, with the preliminary-round series being a best-of-three affair while the remainder of the series remained best-of-seven. The 1977–78 season had one minor change in its playoff format: although the second-place finishers from each division would qualify for the preliminary round, the four playoff spots reserved for the third-place teams were replaced by four wild-card spots—spots for the four teams with the highest regular-season point total that did not finish first or second in their divisions.
With the absorption of four teams from the World Hockey Association in the 1979–1980 season, a new playoff system was introduced where 16 of the league's 21 teams would qualify for postseason play. The four division winners would qualify for the playoffs while twelve wildcard positions rounded out the sixteen teams. At the beginning of each round the teams were seeded based on their regular season point totals, with the preliminary round being a best-of-five series while all other playoff series were best-of-seven.
The 1981–1982 season brought forth the return of divisional matchups, with the top four teams from each division qualifying for the postseason play. Division champions would be determined, followed by the Conference champions, who would meet in the Stanley Cup Finals. The division semifinals was a best-of-five affair until the 1986–87 season, when it became a best-of-seven series, while all other series remained best-of seven.
For the 1993–94 season, the league revamped its playoff structure to become conference-based rather than division-based. Eight teams in each conference qualified for the playoffs. The division first-place teams were seeded first (the team with the best record in the conference) and second in the conference playoffs and received home ice advantage for the first two rounds. The next best six teams in each conference also qualified and were seeded third through eighth. All teams played in the first round: first-place versus eighth, second versus seventh, third versus sixth and fourth versus fifth. All series were best-of-seven, but the arrangement of home games was changed for Central and Pacific division teams. Instead of the normal 2–2–1–1–1 rotation, a series involving teams from both divisions was 2–3–2, with the higher seeded team having the option of starting play at home or on the road. After each round, surviving teams were reseeded to play a conference semi-final, then a conference final. The conference winners played each other for the Stanley Cup in the Final. Home ice advantage was determined by higher seed in the first three rounds and by regular-season points of the two teams in the Stanley Cup Final.
In 1998–99, the league was re-organized into two conferences of three divisions apiece, resulting in the playoff format used through 2013. The qualifiers remained sixteen, but the seeding changed. The three first-place teams in each division qualified and were seeded first through third for the playoffs. Of the other teams in each conference, the top five finishers qualified for the fourth through eighth seedings. All teams played in the first round: first-place versus eighth, second versus seventh, third versus sixth and fourth versus fifth, by those criteria. After each round, surviving teams were reseeded to play a conference semi-final, then a conference final. The conference winners played each other for the Stanley Cup in the Final. Home ice advantage was determined by higher seed in the first three rounds and by regular-season points of the two teams in the Stanley Cup Final.
The NHL realigned into a four-division, two-conference system for the 2013–14 season. Under the new postseason system, the top three teams in each division will make the playoffs, with two wild-cards in each conference (for a total of eight playoff teams from each conference). The format will be division-based, similar to the 1981–82 system. In the first round, the top-ranked team in the conference plays against the lowest-ranked wild-card, while the other division winner plays against the higher ranked wild-card. The second and third place teams in each division will then play each other. The first round winners will then meet in the second round, the Divisional Finals. The third round will still consist of the Western Conference and Eastern Conference Finals.
Traditions and trends
Compared to other major professional sports leagues, playoff upsets are relatively common in the NHL. According to NHL broadcaster Darren Eliot, this is because the style of competition in the playoffs is different from the regular season: instead of playing different teams every night, the goal is to advance through four best-of-seven playoff series. The Presidents' Trophy winner may have to go through other playoff clubs who might have a hotter goaltender, a better defensive team, or other players that pose matchup problems. If the regular season champion's primary success was only outscoring others, they may be out of luck facing goaltenders that can shut them out.
The Stanley Cup playoffs MVP award, the Conn Smythe Trophy is based on the entire NHL postseason instead of just the championship game or series, unlike the playoff MVP awards presented in the other major professional sports leagues of the United States and Canada (the Super Bowl MVP, the NBA Finals MVP, and the World Series MVP), although in its history the trophy has never been given to someone that was not in the finals. Doug Gilmour and Peter Forsberg, in 1986 and 1999, respectively, are the only players who have topped the postseason in scoring without making it to the Finals.
NHL players have often grown beards when their team is in the playoffs, where they do not shave until their team is eliminated or wins the Stanley Cup. The tradition was started in the 1980s by the New York Islanders.
At the conclusion of a playoff series, players and coaches line up and exchange handshakes with their counterparts on the opposing team, and this has been described by commentators as "one of the great traditions in sports". However, there have been rare occasions that individual players have refused to participate, such as Gerry Cheevers who left the ice without shaking hands with any of the Flyers in 1978, Billy Smith who avoided handshakes as he was particularly passionate about losses, and in 1996 when several Detroit Red Wings players protested the dirty hit by the Colorado Avalanche's Claude Lemieux.
It is common among players to never touch or hoist the Prince of Wales Trophy (Eastern Conference champion) or Clarence S. Campbell Bowl (Western Conference champion) after they have won the conference finals; the players feel that the Stanley Cup is the true championship trophy and thus it should be the only trophy that they should be hoisting. There have been two recent exceptions to this – Scott Stevens of the Devils in 2000 and 2003 and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins in 2009. In both of those cases, their teams went on to win the Stanley Cup. In recent years, the captain of the winning team poses (usually looking solemn) with the conference trophy, and sometimes, the entire team poses as well.
There are many traditions and anecdotes associated with the championship trophy, the Stanley Cup.
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- Darren Eliot (April 7, 2010). Inside Report: Presidents' Trophy to curse Caps? (in English). SI.com. Retrieved March 30, 2011.
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- Analyst (May 18, 2009). "NHL Playoff Traditions: Why the NHL Is the Most Celebrated League". Bleacher Report. Retrieved March 17, 2014.
- "Yes, it's tradition, but players should have a choice - NHL - ESPN". Sports.espn.go.com. April 26, 2007. Retrieved March 17, 2014.
- Coffey, Phil (June 2, 2006). "NHL.com – Ice Age: Having another trophy in mind". Retrieved July 25, 2006.[dead link]