|Current season, competition or edition:|
2021 Stanley Cup playoffs
|No. of teams||16|
|Tampa Bay Lightning (3)|
|Most titles||Montreal Canadiens (24)|
|Official website||Stanley Cup Playoffs|
The Stanley Cup playoffs (French: Les séries éliminatoires de la Coupe Stanley) is an elimination tournament in the National Hockey League (NHL) consisting of four rounds of best-of-seven series to determine the league champion and the winner of the Stanley Cup. Eight teams from each of the two conferences qualify for the playoffs based on regular season points totals. The final round is commonly known as the Stanley Cup Finals, which matches the two conference champions.
The NHL is the only major professional sports league in North America to refer to its playoffs by the name of its championship trophy, a tradition which has arisen because the Stanley Cup is North America's oldest professional sports trophy, dating back more than two decades before the establishment of the NHL. Originally inscribed the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, the trophy was donated in 1892 by Lord Stanley of Preston, then-Governor General of Canada, initially as a "challenge trophy" for Canada's top-ranking amateur ice hockey club. From 1893 when the first Cup was awarded to 1914, the champions held onto the Cup until they either lost their league title to another club, or a champion from another league issued a formal challenge and defeated the reigning Cup champion in a final game to claim their win.
Professional teams then first became eligible to challenge for the Stanley Cup in 1906. Starting in 1915, the Cup was officially contested between the champion of the National Hockey Association (NHA) and the champion of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA). After a series of league mergers and folds, including the 1917 establishment of the NHL as a successor to the NHA, the Stanley Cup became the championship trophy of the NHL prior to the 1926-27 season.
The NHL has always used a playoff tournament to determine its champion. The league's playoff system has changed over the years, from the NHL's inception in 1917, to when the NHL took over the Cup in 1926, to the current setup today.
The Stanley Cup playoffs consists of four rounds of best-of-seven series. Each series is played in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, meaning the team with home-ice advantage hosts games one, two, five, and seven, while their opponent hosts games three, four, and six. Games five, six, and seven are only played if needed.
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 of the four divisions qualify for the playoffs automatically. Two additional teams from each conference, regardless of divisional alignment, also qualify for the playoffs by having the highest point totals out of the remaining teams in the conference. These teams are referred to as the wild cards. Since there is no attention paid to divisional alignment with the wild cards, it is possible for one division in a conference to have five teams in the postseason while the other has just three.
In the First Round, the 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.
The winners of both First Round series advance to the Second Round. 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 two Conference Final winners move on to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In the first two rounds, the higher-seeded team has home-ice advantage (regardless of point record). Thereafter, it goes to the team with the better regular season record (regardless of seeding); in the case of a tie, the league's standard tie breaking procedure is applied. 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).
Any ties in the standings at the end of the regular season are broken using the following protocols:
During the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, the NHL adopted a special format for the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs with the top 12 teams from each conference qualifying. The top four teams competed in a round-robin tournament to determine seeding in the First Round, while the next eight seeds in each conference played in a best-of-five series to determine who advanced to the First Round.
Due to the ongoing closure of the Canada-United States border, the league realigned into four different divisions and temporarily abolished both conferences. As a result, the top four teams in each division made the playoffs. All four rounds of the playoffs remained as best-of-seven series, and the first two rounds of the playoffs featured intra-divisional matchups. The four division champions were re-seeded based on regular season point total in the Stanley Cup Semifinals. The best-ranked division winner played against the worst-ranked division winner, while the other two division champions faced-off against each other, with the second-best division champion having home-ice advantage. The winners of these series advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, as before.
Unlike the regular season where a contest could eventually be decided in a shootout, overtime in the playoffs is played in multiple sudden-death, 20-minute five-on-five periods until one team scores. Although a playoff game could theoretically last indefinitely, only two contests have reached six overtime periods, and both of those did not go beyond six. During playoff overtime periods, the only break is to shovel away the loose ice shavings at the first stoppage after the period is halfway finished.
The Stanley Cup was commissioned in 1892 as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup and was named after Lord Stanley of Preston, the Governor General of Canada who donated it as an award to Canada's top-ranking amateur ice hockey club.:23-24 The entire Stanley family supported the sport, the sons and daughters all playing and promoting the game. The first Cup was then awarded in 1893 to Montreal Hockey Club.
During the period from 1893 to 1914, the champions held the Cup until they lost their league title to another club, or a champion from another league issued a formal challenge and subsequently defeated them in a special game or series. The competitive format of each Cup challenge was determined by negotiation between the two clubs. Furthermore, none of the leagues that played for the Cup had a formal playoff system to decide their respective champions; whichever team finished in first place after the regular season won the league title. A playoff would only be played if teams tied for first-place in their leagues at the end of the regular season.
As the prestige of winning the Cup grew, so did the need to attract top players, and thus professional teams first became eligible to challenge for the Stanley Cup in 1906. Then in 1908, the Allan Cup was introduced as the trophy for Canada's amateurs, and the Stanley Cup became a symbol of professional hockey supremacy. In 1910, the National Hockey Association (NHA) held its inaugural season and soon emerged as the best professional hockey league in Canada, keeping the Cup for the next four years. In 1914, the Victoria Aristocrats of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) challenged the NHA and Cup champion Toronto Blueshirts. One year later, the NHA and the PCHA began an agreement in which their respective champions would face each other annually for the Stanley Cup, effectively ending the Cup challenge games.
After years of the NHA not having an annual playoff tournament to determine its league champion, the 1916-17 NHA season saw the league split its schedule into two halves with the top team from each half moving on to the league finals, which was a two-game total goals series. The PCHA continued to award their league title to the team that finished in first place after the regular season.
The National Hockey League (NHL) was founded in November 1917 as a successor to the NHA. From the NHL's inception until 1920, both NHL and PCHA teams were eligible for the Stanley Cup. The NHL inherited the NHA's regular-season system of dividing it into two halves, with the top team from each half moving on to the league finals. The NHL finals 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 (WCHL) 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 Cup championship series 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 champion, 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 returned to a best-of-five format the same year.
With the merger of the PCHA and WCHL in 1925 and the merged league's collapse in 1926, the NHL took de facto control of the Stanley Cup.:21 While the Cup would not be formally deeded to the league until 1947, from 1926 onward the NHL playoffs and the Stanley Cup playoffs are considered synonymous. The NHL was subsequently divided into the Canadian and American divisions for 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 becoming a best-of-five series. In 1928, the playoff format was changed so that the two teams with identical division ranking would face each other (i.e., the division winners 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.
The 1930s saw the reduction of teams from ten to seven, which resulted in 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). In 1939, the Stanley Cup Finals became a best-of-seven series, the format still used today.
The 1942-43 season saw the removal of the New York Americans, leaving six remaining teams (now known as the "Original Six"). From 1943 to 1967, all playoff match ups were best-of-seven affairs. The first and third-place teams played in one semifinal, while the second and fourth-place teams played in the other semifinal, with the semifinal winners advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals. 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 for the 1967-68 season, and with it the creation of the Western and Eastern divisions. The playoff format remained largely the same, with four teams in each division qualifying for the playoffs, all series remaining best-of-seven, and the division champions battling for the Stanley Cup. The 1970-71 season, because of fan demand, brought forth the first inter-conference playoff match up outside of the Stanley Cup Finals since the pre-war expansion, which had the winner of the second-place versus fourth-place match up in one conference take on the winner of the first- versus third-place match up in the other conference for a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. 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 match up 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. This change necessitated the need to reseed the winners of the quarterfinals by matching up the highest remaining seed of one division against the lowest remaining seed from the other division in the semifinals.
The 1974-75 season saw another change to the playoff system to accommodate a league that had expanded to 18 teams in two conferences and four divisions. Under this system, twelve teams 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 1979-80 season, a new playoff system was introduced where 16 of the league's 21 teams qualified for postseason play. The four division winners qualified for the playoffs while twelve wild-card 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 1981-82 season brought forth the return of divisional matchups, with the top four teams from each division qualifying for the playoffs. 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 first-place teams in each division were seeded first and second in their respective conference playoffs; the next six best teams in each conference also qualified and were seeded third through eighth. All teams played in the Conference Quarterfinals: first-place versus eighth, second versus seventh, third versus sixth, and fourth versus fifth; after each round, the surviving teams were re-seeded to play the Conference Semifinals, then a Conference Final, with the conference champions playing against each other in the Stanley Cup Finals. 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 Finals. 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 (the format was used four times in 1994, between 1995 and 1998, all higher seeded teams opted to start play at home with the 2-2-1-1-1 format).
For the 1998-99 season, the league re-organized into two conferences of three divisions apiece, resulting in the playoff format used through the 2012-13 season. 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 seeds, respectively. The format otherwise remained identical to that of the 1994-1998 system.
The NHL realigned into a four-division, two-conference system for the 2013-14 season. Under the postseason system from 2014 to 2019, the top three teams in each division make the playoffs, with two wild-cards in each conference (for a total of eight playoff teams from each conference). The format was division-based, similar to the 1981-82 system. In the First Round, the top-ranked team in the conference played against the lowest-ranked wild-card, while the other division winner played against the higher ranked wild-card. The second and third place teams in each division played each other. The first round winners then meet in the Second Round. The third round still consisted of the Western Conference and Eastern Conference Finals, with those conference winners advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.
A qualification round was used in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic prematurely ending the regular season in order to reduce the 24 teams (12 in each conference) taking part in that round to the normal amount of sixteen teams (eight per conference). For the following season, due to ongoing cross-border travel restrictions, the NHL temporarily suspended the current alignment and adopted a modified four-division structure, with the top four teams in each division qualifying for the playoffs and the division champions playing in a Semifinal round prior to the Stanley Cup Finals.
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.[dubious ] 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. For the first time, during the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, all division winners were eliminated in the first round, which also saw the first instance that a Presidents' Trophy winner was swept 4-0 in the opening round.
And although rare, another aspect is that the NHL leads the other leagues in game seven comebacks. Only four instances has an NHL team been able to come back from being down 0-3 to win a seven-game series: the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1975 New York Islanders, the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, and the 2014 Los Angeles Kings. There has been only one such "reverse sweep" comeback in the MLB postseason (the 2004 Boston Red Sox) and none in the NBA playoffs.
Despite having more American-based teams than Canadian-based ones throughout much of the NHL's existence (dating back to the Original Six era when it was two Canadian clubs to four American ones, and now 7 to 24 since 2017), there have been only two times in league history where none of the Canadian teams qualified for the postseason: 1970 and 2016. However, the 1993 Montreal Canadiens remain the last Canadian club to win the Stanley Cup, as of 2021.
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, and is often mirrored by the fans, as well.
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, and Billy Smith who avoided handshakes as he was particularly passionate about losses. More recent examples of players refusing the handshake include the 1996 playoffs when several Detroit Red Wings players protested the dirty hit by the Colorado Avalanche's Claude Lemieux, and in the 2008 playoffs when Martin Brodeur refused to shake Sean Avery's hand after Avery screened him in an earlier game.
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. However, there have been many exceptions to this. 19 of the conference champions since 1997 have touched the trophy, of which 8 teams went on to win the Stanley Cup - Scott Stevens of the Devils in 2000 and 2003; Sidney Crosby of the Penguins in 2009, 2016, and 2017; Alexander Ovechkin of the Capitals in 2018; and Steven Stamkos of the Lightning in 2020. 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.
Because the Ice Hockey World Championships are held in the same time period as the Stanley Cup playoffs, the only NHL players who can participate in the former are those on NHL teams that have been eliminated from Stanley Cup contention. This policy has been in place since a 1977 agreement between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation, which allowed Team Canada to field a team in the World Championships after an-eight year absence.
Correct as of 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs
|Montreal Canadiens[A]||88 [B]|
|Toronto Maple Leafs[A]||70|
|Detroit Red Wings[A]||64|
|New York Rangers[A]||60|
|St. Louis Blues||44|
|Dallas Stars||33 [C]|
|Calgary Flames||30 [D]|
|Los Angeles Kings||30|
|New York Islanders||27|
|Colorado Avalanche||26 [E][F]|
|New Jersey Devils||23 [G]|
|San Jose Sharks||21|
|Ottawa Senators||16 [J]|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||13|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||6|
|Winnipeg Jets||6 [K]|
|Vegas Golden Knights||4|
The Canucks weren't going to become the first Canadian-based team since the 1992-93 Montreal Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup with such little production.
Thus, the only professionals who could participate were those on NHL teams that did not make the playoffs or were eliminated quickly
Since 1977, Canada has competed at the annual IIHF competition mainly using players from teams that have been eliminated from the NHL play-offs