For the first time the NCAA tournament was expanded to 12 teams (four more than the previous seven years) partially as a result of an increasing number of programs as well as two additional conferences being created in the interim.
This was the first tournament to include an independent school since 1960, more than a year before the ECAC was founded.
The NCAA permitted 12 teams to qualify for the tournament and divided its qualifiers into two regions (East and West). Each of the tournament champions from the four Division I conferences (CCHA, ECAC, Hockey East and WCHA) received automatic invitations into the tournament with At-large bids making up the remaining 8 teams. The NCAA permitted one Independent team to participate in the tournament and placed it in the western bracket with the intention to place an additional independent in the eastern regional in 1989. As a result the two western conferences (WCHA and CCHA) would split only three open spots as opposed to the East's four open spots.
The tournament featured four rounds of play. The three odd-number ranked teams from one region were placed into a bracket with the three even-number ranked teams of the other region. The teams were then seeded according to their ranking with the top two teams in each bracket receiving byes into the quarterfinals. In the first round the third and sixth seeds and the fourth and fifth seeds played two-game aggregate series to determine which school advanced to the Quarterfinals with the winners of the 4 vs. 5 series playing the first seed and the winner of the 3 vs. 6 series playing the second seed. In the Quarterfinals the matches were two-game aggregates once more with the victors advancing to the National Semifinals. Beginning with the Semifinals all games were played at the St. Paul Civic Center and all series became Single-game eliminations. The winning teams in the semifinals advanced to the National Championship Game.