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NHL playoff format 2017: How does the new system work?

We’re only in the fourth year of the new playoff format, and it’s still a bit to get used to.

New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Two Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs mark the fourth year of the NHL’s current postseason format, but there’s still a good dose of confusion out there. We had 20 years to get used to saying “Well, maybe they’ll sneak in as an eight seed ...” and now there’s no such thing as an eight seed anymore. It’s a big change.

No more 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc. Things are done in a divisional format now, meaning that there are four groupings of four teams instead of just two groupings of eight. Wild Card spots make things even more complicated.

But look on the bright side: There's a bracket now! And we're guaranteed at least four first-round series between divisional rivals!

Let’s get into how this all works.

How teams qualify

  • There are still 16 overall teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, eight from the East and eight from the West.
  • The top three teams in each division automatically qualify for the postseason. That gives us 12 of our 16 playoff teams.

The four remaining teams will qualify via Wild Card spots: two in the East, two in the West. The top two teams in each conference who don't finish in the top three of their division will take the Wild Card spots.

The NHL’s playoff format sucks

How teams are seeded

  • The bracket is broken up into four parts, one for each of the league's four divisions.
  • The first place team in each division gets the No. 1 seed in their divisional playoff.
  • The second and third place teams in each division are the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in their divisional playoff. They will go head-to-head in the first round.
  • Here's where it gets tricky: The two Wild Card teams will take the No. 4 seeds. They will each play a No. 1 seed in the first round. The better of the two Wild Card teams will face the lesser of the two No. 1 seeds, while the lesser Wild Card team will face the better No. 1 seed. (It may be easier to think of this as No. 1 playing No. 8 while No. 2 plays No. 7.)
  • It's key to note that the Wild Card teams can play in a divisional playoff other than the one they call home during the regular season. Yes, this means that the Detroit Red Wings, for example, could win the "Metropolitan Division Final" despite being an Atlantic Division team.
  • Teams that win in the first round — or, the Divisional Semifinals — advance to the Divisional Final. Teams that come win their divisional bracket will play for the Eastern Conference and Western Conference championships. Teams that win the Conference Finals will, of course, meet in the Stanley Cup Final.

Teams do not reseed each round, as was the case previously.

The bracket

Here’s the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoff bracket, for the visual learners out there.