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NHL playoffs and Stanley Cup explained

The Stanley Cup is one of the most iconic prizes in sport. The winner is decided by a thrilling best of seven championship series at the end of the NHL playoffs. Below we tell you everything you need to know about the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs

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History of the Stanley Cup

The Stanley Cup is one of the best tournaments in sport and boasts one of the most beautiful championship trophies in the sporting world. The Stanley Cup was commissioned in 1892 as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup and is 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. The entire Stanley family supported the sport with Lord Stanley’s sons and daughters all playing and promoting the game.

Nazem Kadri (91) celebrates with the Stanley Cup trophy after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning during game six of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena. Pic: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nazem Kadri (91) celebrates with the Stanley Cup trophy after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning during game six of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena. Pic: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The first iteration of the Stanley Cup was awarded in 1893 to Montreal Hockey Club, and winners from 1893 to 1914 were determined by challenge games and league play. Professional teams first became eligible to challenge for the Stanley Cup in 1906. In 1915, the National Hockey Association (NHA) and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA), the two main professional ice hockey organizations, reached an agreement in which their respective champions would face each other annually for the Stanley Cup. It was later established as the championship trophy of the NHL in 1926 and has been the trophy awarded to the NHL champion every year since.

How the Stanley Cup playoffs work

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are the annual post-regular season tournament that decides the NHL Stanley Cup champion for that season. The Eastern Conference has two divisions - the Atlantic Division and Metropolitan Division. The Western Conference also has two divisions - the Central Division and Pacific Division. The Stanley Cup Playoffs consistent of the top eight teams in each conference who qualify for the playoffs. These 16 playoff teams battle in an elimination tournament featuring four playoff rounds with each being contested in a best-of-seven series.

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Andrei Vasilevskiy in action Pic: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The top three teams in each division make the playoffs while the two teams with the most points in that conference outside of the top three teams in each division also qualify for the playoffs as Wildcard teams. The top seed in each division plays one of the wild card teams from their conference. The division winner with the most points plays the wildcard team with the fewest number of points in that conference. The second and third seeds in each division face each other in the opening round of the playoffs. 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). Unlike the regular season where a game 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.

What are the Stanley Cup playoffs?

The NHL is made up four divisions: the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific. The Central and Pacific divisions make up the Western Conference, while the Atlantic and Metropolitan both fall into the Eastern Conference. Each year, eight teams each from both conferences make the Stanley Cup playoffs. These 16 teams playoff in an elimination tournament with each round taking place over a best-of-seven series. The top three sides from each division during the regular season make it into the playoffs.

The other two spots in each conference are taken up by the next two sides with the best regular season form, regardless of their division. Those four places are known as the wild card entries. The top seed in each division plays one of the wild card teams from their conference. The division winner with the highest points tally plays the wildcard side with the lowest in that conference. Meanwhile, the second and third seeds in each division face each other in the other first round ties.

Home-ice advantage through the first two rounds goes to the team that placed higher in the regular-season standings. However, in the Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final, home-ice advantage goes to the team that had the better regular-season record, regardless of the teams' final standing in their respective divisions.

Each series is played in a 2-2-1-1-1 home/away format. Here, the side with home advantage plays the first two games on home-ice and the next two away. If the fifth, sixth and seventh game are needed, the alternate from home, to away, and back home.

How many teams qualify for the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs?

The 16 best teams from the regular season qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, with eight teams from each conference making up the field. Those 16 teams comprise of the three teams ranked the highest in each division and two other teams from each conference with the next best records.

Boston Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman. © James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman. © James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

In the NHL, when a team wins a game, it is awarded two points. In an 82 game regular season, a team would need around 98-100 points to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. There is a maximum of 164 points on offer for an individual team.

The Montreal Canadiens holds the record for the best regular season in 1976-77, with a points tally of 132. That season they won 60 of the 80 games played during that portion of the season. They went on to sweep the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals 4-0.

When do the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs start?

Now that the NHL regular season will start on time in early October and be a full 82 game season schedule, the Stanley Cup Playoffs will return to their regular approximate start date on the calendar each year which is the second week of April.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs often last nearly 60 days until the middle of June when the Stanley Cup Final concludes. The Colorado Avalanche are the defending Stanley Cup champions after defeating the previous two-time winners Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 in six games.

Stanley Cup winners 1981 - 2022

2022Colorado Avalanche
2021Tampa Bay Lightning
2020Tampa Bay Lightning
2019St. Louis Blues
2018Washington Capitals
2017Pittsburgh Penguins
2016Pittsburgh Penguins
2015Chicago Blackhawks
2014Los Angeles Kings
2013Chicago Blackhawks
2012Los Angeles Kings
2011Boston Bruins
2010Chicago Blackhawks
2009Pittsburgh Penguins
2008Detroit Red Wings
2007Anaheim Ducks
2006Carolina Hurricanes
2005Season canceled due to the 2004–05 NHL lockout
2004Tampa Bay Lightning
2003New Jersey Devils
2002Detroit Red Wings
2001Colorado Avalanche
2000New Jersey Devils
1999Dallas Stars
1998Detroit Red Wings
1997Detroit Red Wings
1996Colorado Avalanche
1995New Jersey Devils
1994New York Rangers
1993Montreal Canadiens
1992Pittsburgh Penguins
1991Pittsburgh Penguins
1990Edmonton Oilers
1989Calgary Flames
1988Edmonton Oilers
1987Edmonton Oilers
1986Montreal Canadiens
1985Edmonton Oilers
1984Edmonton Oilers
1983New York Islanders
1982New York Islanders
1981New York Islanders

Who are the most successful teams in the Stanley Cup?

The Montreal Canadiens is the team with the best record in the NHL playoffs. Since the competition began, all the way back in 1915, they have managed to win 24 Stanley Cup titles. They have also appeared in the final 35 times. The next most successful team is also from Canada, with the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup 14 times. The most successful team from the USA is the Detroit Red Wings, who have 11 Stanley Cup victories to their name.

When is the Stanley Cup final?

The Stanley Cup Finals are expected to take place at some point in June, depending on the length of the playoff series. Like the other rounds, they will be played out over a best-of-seven game series between the winners of the Eastern and Western Conference finals.

The pre-playoff favorites are Colorado Avalanche and the Florida Panthers, with defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning next in the betting.

Which player has the most Stanley Cup wins?

Henri Richard holds the honour of having the most Stanley Cups wins. The former Montreal Canadien player lifted the trophy 11 times during his 20 year career. His first NHL win came in 1956, with his last in 1973. He passed away in 2020 but is still known as one of the greatest players to ever skate. There are no current players close to his record. Seven active players have won the Stanley Cup three times which is the largest number of Stanley Cup titles that any current player has won.

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