The NHL didn’t just realign its divisions this season; the league came up with an entirely new playoff format.
This year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs still includes 16 teams, eight per conference. But there are some new tweaks with the addition of wild card teams.
Under the new format, the top three teams in each of the four divisions automatically qualify for the post-season, while the remaining two playoff spots per conference are given to the teams with the most remaining points. In simpler terms, there are two wild card teams per conference.
Here’s how the matchups work in the opening round:
1. The division leader with the most points in the conference will face the wild card team with the fewest points.
2. The division leader with the fewest points in the same conference will face the wild card team with the most points.
3. The second-place team in each division will host the third-place team in its own division.
The second round is where things really differ from the past format. The remaining four teams per conference will no longer be reseeded and will use a bracket format similar to the NBA playoffs or March Madness.
For example, let’s look at the Eastern Conference playoff bracket:
(A1) Boston vs. (WC2) Detroit
(A2) Tampa Bay vs. (A3) Montreal
(M1) Pittsburgh vs. (WC1) Columbus
(M2) New York vs. (M3) Philadelphia
Note: The Lightning and Canadiens simply fall into the same bracket as their divisional leader, in this case the Atlantic Division champion Bruins.
In the past, if eighth-seed Detroit upset Boston, the Red Wings would play the highest-remaining seed in the following round. But that is no longer the case.
Under the new format, Detroit will remain in its bracket and would play the winner of the Montreal-Tampa Bay series in the next round. That’s the major change.
So even if both the wild cards come from the same division, one of the teams essentially crosses over and plays its first two rounds in its conference’s other division.