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What is the format for the NHL playoffs? We go over how the bracket works

We go over the format and bracket for the NHL postseason.

Valeri Nichushkin of the Colorado Avalanche celebrates with teammates Devon Toews, Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon after scoring a goal during the second period against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on March 27, 2023 in Anaheim, California. Photo by Nicole Vasquez/NHLI via Getty Images

There is no greater postseason than the Stanley Cup Playoffs. You can say what you want about all the other sports and their respective postseasons. The NCAA Tournament. The NBA Playoffs. The race for the World Series. Nothing beats the Stanley Cup Playoffs and playoff hockey.

There have been a lot of changes to the format for the NHL playoffs over the years, particularly in more recent seasons with the COVID-19 pandemic restricting travel. That altered how the playoffs are formatted today, realigning the divisions and reverting back to something a bit more normal. Here we’ll go over the playoff format and how the bracket works.

NHL playoff format

The NHL playoff format is pretty standard. It’s split up in the Western and Eastern conferences, with two divisions in each conference. From each conference, eight teams make the postseason — six are comprised of the top-3 teams in each division, the two final spots are wild cards. The top overall seed in the conference will face the second wild card while the other first-place team via division will face the first wild card team. Here’s an overview of how the bracket looks (we’ll use 2023 as an example):

If the playoffs were to start on March 31, here’s what the bracket would look like:

No. 1 ATL Boston Bruins (most points)
WC2 Pittsburgh Penguins

No. 2 ATL Toronto Maple Leafs
No. 3 ATL Tampa Bay Lightning

No. 1 MET Carolina Hurricanes
WC1 New York Islanders

No. 2 MET New Jersey Devils
No. 3 MET New York Rangers

The same type of process would go down for the Western Conference, so can take a look at the standings and see how those matchups would shake out. Again, above is just an example given how the standings are positioned at the time. The format was shifted to create more natural matchups within divisions, forcing the top team in the division to face one of the two teams below them in the standings should they advance from the first round. So from those matchups, it would progress naturally, rather than any re-seeding taking place.