A guide to the NHL's new playoff format

A guide to the NHL's new playoff format
April 9, 2014, 12:00 pm
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The Flyers clinched a spot in the playoffs with ehtier 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers April 8. (USA Today Images)

The Flyers have clinched a playoff spot. That much you already know.

But just how does the NHL's new playoff structure work? It's a bit more complicated than the old system -- and it's already led to plenty of confusion. So that's why I'm here. 

First, recall the league's realignment. There's still the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference, but each conference has two new divisions as of 2013-14: The Western Conference lays claim to the Pacific Division and the Central Division, while you'll find the Atlantic Division and Metropolitan Division in the East.

And, finally, before we continue, forget everything you know about those old-school 1-through-8 seeds.

The first round: the Divisional Semifinals
The top three seeds in each division are guaranteed playoff spots. That accounts for the first 12 teams that make the postseason. 

Next, the two teams in each conference who aren't among the top three in their respective divisions but have the next-highest point totals become wild-card No. 1 and wild-card No. 2 (four teams total). So, in the East, say the Penguins, Rangers and Flyers are the Metropolitan's top three teams, and the Bruins, Canadiens and Lightning are the Atlantic's top three. If you look at the standings as of April 9, the Red Wings and Blue Jackets are the two Eastern Conference teams with the two highest points totals that are not among the top three teams in their divisions. The Red Wings (90 points) would become wild-card No. 1 if the playoffs began April 9, while the Blue Jackets (89) would become wild-card No. 2.

The top seed (the division winner with the most points in the conference) in the Eastern Conference plays wild-card No. 2, while the other division winner plays wild-card No. 1. That leaves the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in each division (those aforementioned teams who were among the first 12 to gain postseason entry) to face each other with the winner moving on.

Simple enough, right? But there are caveats. First: While the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in each division face each other, the winners of each division don't have to face a wild-card team from within their division. So, it would be entirely possible for the Bruins to take on the Blue Jackets in the first round.

Finally, the two wild-card teams do not have to be from different divisions. They could, for instance, both be from the Atlantic Division if their fifth-place team had more points than the Metropolitan's fourth-place team. Got it? Good.

The second round: the Divisional Finals
Teams that win their first-round matchups advance to the Divisional Finals. But a Metropolitan Division team, in theory, could "win" the Atlantic Division. 

The easiest way to look at it is this: Let's say the Bruins are the East's top team, and the Blue Jackets are the East's wild-card No. 2. They're in different divisions, but they'll play each other in the first round nonetheless. Think of the Blue Jackets as an honorary member of the Atlantic Division. If the Blue Jackets won their series against the Bruins, they would go on to face whichever team won the Atlantic's No. 2-No. 3 matchup in this round.

Note: Teams do not reseed each round, as was the case in the past.

The third round: the Conference Finals
Congrats: You've made it past the complicated part! The Conference Finals are played between whichever two teams are left in the East and whichever two teams are left in the West. They'll likely be representing both divisions, though not necessarily (for reasons explained above). The winner of each conference advances to play for the best trophy in pro sports.

The Stanley Cup Final
It's exactly the same as it was last year. 

And there you have it.

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