Hockey Central
 
All-Time NHL Playoff Formats
 
1917-18 The regular-season was spilt into two halves. The winners of both halves faced each other in a two-game, total-goals series for the NHL Championship and the right to meet the PCHA champion in the best-of-five Stanley Cup Finals.
1918-19 Same as 1917-18, except that the Stanley Cup Finals was extended to a best-of-seven series.
1919-20 Same as 1917-18, except that Ottawa won both halves of the spilt regular-season schedule to earn an automatic berth into the best-of-five Stanley Cup Finals against the PCHA champions.
1921-22 The top two teams at the conclusion of the regular-season faced each other in a two-game, total-goals series for the NHL championship. The NHL champion then moved on to play the winner of the PCHA-WCHL playoff series in the best-of-five Stanley Cup Finals.
1922-23 The top two teams at the conclusion of the regular-season faced each other in a two-game, total-goals series for the NHL championship. The NHL champion then moved on to play the PCHA champion in the best-of-three Stanley Cup Semi-Finals, and the winner of the Semi-Finals played the WCHL champion, which had been given a bye, in the best-of-three Stanley Cup Finals.
1923-24 The top two teams at the conclusion of the regular-season faced each other in a two-game, total-goals series for the NHL championship. The NHL champion then moved to play the loser of the PCHA-WCHL playoff (the winner of the PCHA-WCHL playoff earned a bye into the Stanley Cup Finals) in the best-of-three Stanley Cup Semi-Finals. The winner of this series met the PCHA-WCHL playoff winner in the best-of-three Stanley Cup Finals.
1924-25 The first team (Hamilton) at the conclusion of the regular-season was supposed to play the winner of a two-game, total-goals series between the second (Toronto) and third (Montreal) place clubs. However, Hamilton refused to abide by this new format, demanding greater compensation than offered by the League. Thus, Toronto and Montreal played their two-game, total-goals series, and the winner (Montreal) earned the NHL title and then played the WCHL champion (Victoria) in the best-of-five Stanley Cup Finals.
1925-26 The format which was intended for 1924-25 went into effect. The winner of the two-game, total-goals series between the second and third place teams squared off against the first place team in the two-game, total-goals NHL championship series. The NHL champion then moved on to play the WHL champion in the best-of-five Stanley Cup Finals.
After the 1925-26 season, the NHL was the only major professional hockey league still in existence and consequently took over sole control of the Stanley Cup competition.
1926-27 The 10-team league was divided into two divisions - Canadian and American - of five teams apiece. In each division, the winner of the two-game, total-goals series between the second and third place teams faced the first place team in a two-game, total-goals series for the division title. The two division title winners then met in the best-of-five Stanley Cup Finals.
1928-29 Both first place teams in the two divisions played each other in a best-of-five series. Both second place teams in the two divisions played each other in a two-game, total-goals series as did the two third place teams. The winners of these latter two series then played the winner of the series between the two first place clubs. This Stanley Cup Final was a best of three:
  • Series A: First in Canadian Division versus first in American (best-of-five)
  • Series B: Second in Canadian Division versus second in American (two-game, total-goals)
  • Series C: Third in Canadian Division versus third in American (two-game, total-goals)
  • Series D: Winner of Series B versus winner of Series C (best-of-three)
  • Series E: Winner of Series A versus winner of Series D (best-of-three) for Stanley Cup.
1931-32 Same as 1928-29, except that Series D was changed to a two-game, total-goals format and Series E was changed to best-of-five.
1936-37 Same as 1931-32, except that Series B, C, and D were each best-of-five.
1938-39 With the NHL reduced to seven teams, the two-division system was replaced by one seven-team league. Based on final regular-season standings, the following playoff format was adopted:
  • Series A: First versus Second (best-of-seven).
  • Series B: Third versus Fourth (best-of-three).
  • Series C: Fifth versus Sixth (best-of-three).
  • Series D: Winner of Series B versus winner of Series C (best-of-three).
  • Series E: Winner of Series A versus winner of Series D (best-of-seven).
1942-43 With the NHL reduced to six teams (the "orginial six"), only the top four finishers qualified for playoff action. The best-of-seven Semi-Finals pitted Team #1 vs Team #3 and Team #2 vs Team #4. The winners of each Semi-Final series met in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Finals.
1967-68 When it doubled in size from 6 to 12 teams, the NHL once again was divided into two divisions - East and West - of six teams apiece. The top four clubs in each division qualified for the playoffs (all series were best-of-seven):
  • Series A: Team #1 (East) vs Team # 3 (East).
  • Series B: Team #2 (East) vs Team # 4 (East).
  • Series C: Team #1 (West) vs Team # 3 (West).
  • Series D: Team #2 (West) vs Team # 4 (West).
  • Series E: Winner of Series A vs winner of Series B.
  • Series F: Winner of Series C vs winner of Series D.
  • Series G: Winner of Series E vs winner of Series F.
1970-71 Same as the 1967-68, except that Series E matched the winners of Series A and D, and Series F matched the winners of Series B and C.
1971-72 Same as 1970-71, except that Series A and C matched Team #1 vs Team # 4, and Series B and D matched Team #2 vs Team #3.
1974-75 With the League now expanded to 18 teams in four divisions, a completely new playoff format was introduced. First, the #2 and #3 teams in each of the four divisions were pooled together in the Preliminary round. These eight (#2 and #3) clubs were ranked #1 to #8 based on regular-season record:
  • Series A: Team #1 vs Team #8 (best-of-three).
  • Series B: Team #2 vs Team #7 (best-of-three).
  • Series C: Team #3 vs Team #6 (best-of-three).
  • Series D: Team #4 vs Team #5 (best-of-three).
The winners of this Preliminary round then pooled together with the four division winners, which had received byes into this Quarter-Final round. These eight teams were again ranked #1 to #8 based on regular-season record:
  • Series E: Team #1 vs Team #8 (best-of-seven).
  • Series F: Team #2 vs Team #7 (best-of-seven).
  • Series G: Team #3 vs Team #6 (best-of-seven).
  • Series H: Team #4 vs Team #5 (best-of-seven).
The four Quarter-Finals winners, which moved on to Semi-Finals, were than ranked #1 to #4 based on regular-season record:
  • Series I: Team #1 vs Team #4 (best-of-team).
  • Series J: Team #2 vs Team #3 (best-of-team).
  • Series K: Winner of Series I vs winner of Series J (best-of-seven).
1977-78 Same as 1974-75, except that the Preliminary round consisted of the #2 teams in the four divisions and the next four teams based on regular-season record (not their standings within their divisions).
1979-80 With the addition of four WHA franchises, the League expanded its playoff structure to include 16 of its 21 teams. The four first place teams in the four divisions automatically earned playoff berths. Amoung the 17 other clubs, the top 12, according to regular-season record, also earned berths. All 16 teams were then pooled together and ranked #1 to #16 based on regular-season record:
  • Series A: Teams #1 vs Team #16 (best-of-five).
  • Series B: Teams #2 vs Team #15 (best-of-five).
  • Series C: Teams #3 vs Team #14 (best-of-five).
  • Series D: Teams #4 vs Team #13 (best-of-five).
  • Series E: Teams #5 vs Team #12 (best-of-five).
  • Series F: Teams #6 vs Team #11 (best-of-five).
  • Series G: Teams #7 vs Team #10 (best-of-five).
  • Series H: Teams #8 vs Team #9 (best-of-five).
The eight preliminary round winners, ranked #1 to #8 based on regular-season record, moved on to the Quarter-Finals.
  • Series I: Teams #1 vs Team #8 (best-of-seven).
  • Series J: Teams #2 vs Team #7 (best-of-seven).
  • Series K: Teams #3 vs Team #6 (best-of-seven).
  • Series L: Teams #4 vs Team #5 (best-of-seven).
The four Quarter-Final winners, ranked #1 to #4 based on the regular-season record, moved on the semi-finals.
  • Series M: Teams #1 vs Team #4 (best-of-seven).
  • Series N: Teams #2 vs Team #3 (best-of-seven).
  • Series O: Winner of Series M and Series N (best-of-seven).
1981-82 The first four teams in each division earned playoff berths. In addition, the first-place team opposed the fourth-place team and the second-place team opposed the third-place team in a best-of-five Division Semi-Final series (DSF). In each division, the two winners of the DSF met in a best-of-seven Division Final series (DF). The two winners in each conference met in a best-of-seven Conference Final series (CF). In the Prince of Wales Conference, the Adams Division winner opposed the Patrick Division winner; in the Clarence Campbell Conference, the Smythe Division winner opposed the Norris Division winner. The two CF winners met in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final (F) series.
1986-87 Division Semi-Final series changed from best-of-five to best-of-seven.
1993-94 The NHL's playoff draw conference-based rather than division-based. At the conclusion of the regular-season, the top eight teams in each of the Eastern and Western Conferences qualify for the playoffs. The teams that finish in first place in each of the League's divisions are seeded first and second in each conference's playoff draw and are assured of home ice advantage in the first two playoff rounds. The remaining teams are seeded on their regular-season point totals. In each conference, the team seeded #1 plays #8; #2 vs #7; #3 vs #6; and #4 vs #5. All series are best-of-seven with home ice rotating on a 2-2-1-1-1 basis, with the exception of matchups between Central and Pacific Division teams. These matchups will be played on a 2-3-2 basis to reduce travel. In a 2-3-2 series, the team with the most points will have its choice to start the series at home or on the road. The Eastern Conference champion will face the Western Conference champion in the Stanley Cup Final.
1994-95 Same as 1993-94, except that in first, second or third-round playoff series involving Central and Pacific Division teams, the team with the better record has the choice of using either a 2-3-2 or a 2-2-1-1-1 format. When a 2-3-2 format is selected, the higher-ranked team has also the choice of playing games 1, 2, 6 and 7 at home or playing 3, 4 and 5 at home. The format for the Stanley Cup Final remains 2-2-1-1-1.
1998-99 The NHL's 27 clubs are realigned into two conferences each consisting of three divisions. The number if teams qualifying for the 1999 Stanley Cup Playoffs remains unchanged at 16. First-round playoff berths will be awarded to the first-place team in each division as well as to the next five best teams based on regular-season point totals in each conference. The three division winners in each conference will be seeded first though third for the playoffs and the next five best teams, in order of points, will be seeded fourth through eighth. In each conference, the team seeded #1 will play #8; #2 vs. #7; #3 vs. #6; and #4 vs. #5 in the quarterfinal round. Teams will be re-seeded based on regular-season point totals at the start of the Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals. Home-ice advantage for the Stanley Cup Finals will be determined by points. All series remain best-of-seven.
2013-14 The NHL's clubs are re-aligned into two conferences each consisting of two divisions. The number of teams qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs remains unchanged at 16.
Twelve First-round berths will be awarded to the top three finishers in each of the four divisions.
These clubs will be the first three "seeds" in each division. Two additional "wild card" berths will be awarded to the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, ranked on the basis of regular-season points and regardless of division. The first-place finisher with the highest number of regular-season points in the conference will be matched against the wild card team with the lowest number of regular-season points, and the first-place finisher with the secong-highest number of regular-season points in the Conference matched against the Wild Card team with the second-lowest number of regular-season points.
In each division, the team seeded #1 plays #4, #2 plays #3.
The two advancing teams in the West and two advancing teams in the East meet in the Conference Finals.
The Eastern and Western Conference champions will meet in the Stanley Cup Final.
Home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Finals will be determined by points.
All series remain the best-of-seven.