How does the NHL playoff format work? Explaining the 2024 Stanley Cup bracket, postseason matchups

The quest for the Stanley Cup is about to begin. 

One of the best times on the sports calendar is here, as the NHL playoffs are set to begin. While the postseason in any sport creates must-watch entertainment, there is truly nothing quite like the spectacle that is the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Like a majority of the major sports leagues in North America, the NHL has switched up the format of the playoffs a number of times. However, the structure for the 2024 postseason remains the same as it has for the last three years. 

NHL PLAYOFF PICTURE: Updated standings, bracket, matchups & key dates for 2024 postseason

Here is a refresher on the format for this year’s postseason.

You can see the latest 2024 Stanley Cup odds at BetMGM.

How many teams make the NHL playoffs?

In total, 16 teams make the postseason in the NHL — eight from the Eastern Conference and eight from the Western Conference.

For each conference, the top three teams from each division are guaranteed placement in the postseason, with the winners of the divisions getting the top two seeds for the playoffs.

The last two spots go to the teams with the two best records out of the rest of the field, meaning they can come from the same division. Those are the wild-card teams. 

How many rounds are in the NHL playoffs?

There are four rounds in the Stanley Cup playoffs — first round, second round, conference finals and Stanley Cup Finals. 

In the first round, the top team in the conference plays the second wild-card team. The other division winner takes on the other wild-card team. The No. 2 team from a division plays the No. 3 team from the same division.

After that, the teams do not get reseeded in the second round. Rather, the series winner with the No. 2 and No. 3 teams for a division plays the winner of the series with their division winner playing the wild card team.

For example, for this postseason, let’s say the Bruins, Panthers and Maple Leafs place first through third in the Atlantic in that order. The winner of the Bruins’ first-round series against the wild-card team faces the winner of the Panthers-Maple Leafs matchup. 

Then, the last two teams in each conference square off in the conference finals. Each conference winner then gets to fight for the Stanley Cup in the finals. 

How many games are in a series?

Every series, no matter the round, will play a best-of-seven series, meaning the first team to win four games advances to the next round. 

Each series is played in a 2–2–1–1–1 format, which means the team with the better record plays Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 at its home arena, while its opponent hosts Games 3, 4, and 6. Only the first four games in the series are guaranteed, with Games 5, 6 and 7 played if necessary. 

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