Season structure of the NHL

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The season structure of the National Hockey League (NHL) is divided into the pre-season, regular season, and the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the pre-season, which is generally held during the last two weeks of September, each team plays several not-for-the-record exhibition games. In the regular season, which generally runs from early October through early April, teams play 82 games which determine their standings. The three highest-placed teams in each division and two wild card teams per conference enter the playoff elimination tournament to determine the Stanley Cup champion.


The NHL pre-season is generally held during the last two weeks of September. Each team plays roughly six to eight exhibition games. These games allow coaches to evaluate their teams, new players to try out for roster and position spots, and established players to practice prior to competitive play. Teams may also have split squad games, in which parts of a team's roster play separate games.

Several pre-season games may be held at neutral sites. Since 2006 in Canada and 2015 in the U.S., Kraft Heinz has sponsored the Kraft Hockeyville contests, in which communities compete for the opportunity to host a pre-season game. Several pre-season games held at international sites have also been scheduled, including games between an NHL team and a club from another league overseas.

Regular season[edit]

Since the 1995–96 season, each team in the NHL plays 82 regular season games, 41 each of home and road. In all, 1,312 games are scheduled (512 of them inter-conference).

For the 2021–22 season the NHL regular season formula was adjusted to account for the addition of the Seattle Kraken. Each team plays either three or four games against the other teams in its division (a total of 26 games) as well as playing all non-divisional teams in their own conference three times (24 games). The remaining games of the season are inter-conference play (32 games), allowing every team in the league to play every other team twice. The schedule is structured so that every NHL team plays in every arena at least once per season.

Each team has a mandatory bye week near the midpoint of the season, during which no regular season games take place.[1] The NHL All-Star Game and its accompanying festivities typically occur during the bye week. From 1998 to 2014, every four years in lieu of an All-Star break, there was a break for the Winter Olympic Games. However, the NHL prohibited players from participation in the 2018 Olympics and the 2022 Olympics.

The league also schedules a three-day Christmas break (since 1971) when no regular season games are played on either Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Games are not played on December 26 unless it falls on a Saturday, in which case no games would be played on December 23. The NHL also has a holiday roster freeze between December 18 and 27, in which in most cases, players cannot be traded, waived, or sent to the minor leagues.[2]

On the day of the Super Bowl (second Sunday of February), the league avoids scheduling any games that night, and will either have a blank slate that day or have a few afternoon games, usually starting no later than 3:00 p.m. EST.

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.[3] 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.

Conferences and divisions
Western Conference Eastern Conference
Pacific Division Central Division Atlantic Division Metropolitan Division
Anaheim Ducks Arizona Coyotes Boston Bruins Carolina Hurricanes
Calgary Flames Chicago Blackhawks Buffalo Sabres Columbus Blue Jackets
Edmonton Oilers Colorado Avalanche Detroit Red Wings New Jersey Devils
Los Angeles Kings Dallas Stars Florida Panthers New York Islanders
San Jose Sharks Minnesota Wild Montreal Canadiens New York Rangers
Seattle Kraken Nashville Predators Ottawa Senators Philadelphia Flyers
Vancouver Canucks St. Louis Blues Tampa Bay Lightning Pittsburgh Penguins
Vegas Golden Knights Winnipeg Jets Toronto Maple Leafs Washington Capitals
Regular season structure
Division Schedule Total games
Within division 4 games × 5 opponents + 3 games × 2 opponents 26
Within conference, non-divisional 3 games × 8 opponents 24
Inter-conference 2 games × 16 opponents 32

Stanley Cup playoffs[edit]

At the end of the regular season, sixteen teams 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 top three teams in each division earn automatic berths (six teams per conference) and the next two teams in the conference earn wild-card spots. The First Round pits 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 play each other. The top ranked team in a division, along with its wild card opponent and the second and third ranked teams of the same division comprise a group or bracket during the First Round, and the two winners will meet in the Second Round. The Western Conference (Pacific vs. Central divisional bracket winners) and Eastern Conference (Atlantic vs. Metropolitan divisional bracket winners) Finals will determine who faces off in the Stanley Cup Finals.[4]

Any ties in the standings are broken using the following protocols:

  1. The fewer number of games played (only used during the season, as all teams will have played 82 games once the regular season is over).
  2. The greater number of regulation wins only (used since the 2019–20 NHL season, reflected by the RW statistic).
  3. The greater number of regulation and overtime wins, excluding shootouts (used since the 2010–11 NHL season, reflected by the ROW statistic).
  4. The greater number of total wins, including shootouts.
  5. The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs.
    1. If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, the points earned and available in the first game played in the city of the club that had the greater number of home games in games between the two are not included.
    2. If more than two clubs are tied, the higher percentage of available points earned in games among those clubs, and not including any "odd" games, are used to determine the standing. The "odd" games are identical to those mentioned in the previous paragraph, that is, the first game in the city of the club that has had more home games in games between each club in the tie. Note that, because of this procedure, if two teams in the multi team tie (also applicable in a two team tie) have only played once against each other, the points earned in that game are not included.
  6. The greater differential between goals for and goals against during the entire regular season.
  7. The greater amount of goals scored (used since 2019–20 NHL season, reflected by the GF statistic).
  8. If two clubs are still tied on non-shootout wins, points earned between the tied clubs and regular season goal differential, a one-game playoff is played under Stanley Cup playoff rules.[5]

For the first two rounds, the higher-seeded team has home-ice advantage (regardless of point record). Thereafter, it goes to whoever has the better regular season record (no matter the seeding). 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").

See also[edit]


  • McCarthy, Dave, ed. (2008). The National Hockey League Official Guide & Record Book/2009. Dan Diamond Associates. ISBN 978-1-894801-14-0.
  1. ^ "NHL schedule: Bye weeks for 2018-19 season". NHL. July 13, 2018.
  2. ^ Whyno, Stephen (December 22, 2017). "NHL's holiday roster freeze tradition lets players breathe easy". Toronto Star. Associated Press. Retrieved December 26, 2017.
  3. ^ "NHL Official Rules: Rule 84 - Overtime".
  4. ^ "NHL realignment includes four divisions, wild card teams". Retrieved July 3, 2013.
  5. ^ "Stanley Cup Playoffs format, qualification system". April 6, 2018. Retrieved April 7, 2018.

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