An average NHL season should last 82 games, excluding the preseason and Stanley Cup Playoffs. The preseason typically begins in the last two weeks of September, and the regular season starts shortly after that in October.
The Stanley Cup playoffs follow an elimination structure, where teams face off in a best-of-seven format, so the number of games played at this point can vary.
This structure has been an exception recently due to COVID-19, but the schedule mentioned above is typical of the league.
The season begins roughly three months after the NHL draft, the most recent of which occurred on July 23rd-24th in 2021. This marked the second year in a row where the draft was held remotely due to COVID-19.
The two-week preseason allows for an evaluation of each team and helps coaches and players alike to readjust to competition. New players can try out for spots on the roster during this time. Each team usually plays six to eight preseason games.
Teams might also participate in ‘split-squad’ games, where they will break up the roster to play in separate matchups.
The Regular Season
Once the regular season gets underway, the 32 teams in the league play 82 games each. The teams play forty-one games at home, and they play the other 41 on the road. The total number of games played adds up to 1,271 games scheduled for the regular season. This number is not always consistent due to cancellations and other inhibitions.
Teams are also grouped by conference, similar to other national sports leagues. They are broken up into an Eastern Conference and a Western Conference, which contain two divisions.
There are sixteen teams in each conference and eight in each division. The Eastern Conference includes the pacific and central divisions, and the Western Conference comprises the Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions.
Every team will play against all others in the division four or five times for 26 total divisional games. They will also play teams in their conference but not their division 24 times. Finally, They will play a total of 24 inter-conference games. By the time the season ends, every team will have played in all 32 arenas.
Around midway through the season, there is a bye-week where no regular league games occur. Instead, there is an annual all-star game. This game is different from a normal one, as each team has four players on the ice simultaneously. The top players from the league are chosen to participate.
In the 2021-2022 season, the all-star game was held in Las Vegas at the T-Mobile Arena. There is also a three-day break for Christmas Eve and Christmas.
In the past (1994-2014), NHL players would also take a break from regular season responsibilities and be able to take part in the Winter Olympics every four years. However, in the 2018 and 2022 Olympics, the NHL prohibited players from joining.
In addition to the all-star game and the Olympics being special events, non-exhibition matchups stand apart from the average game in the league. Outdoor games, hosted in the regular season, are considered to be a welcome change of pace from standard arena play. For example, “The Winter Classic” was played on January 21st, 2022, hosted by the Minnesota Wild. The NHL refers to this game as the NHL’s coldest game.
Amid the tight regular season schedule, there are occasionally additional benefit games. The proceeds from these games are meant to go to charitable causes. Some of these causes include raising money for families who have been put through hardship and have a close connection to the league.
The 2021-2022 season also saw many changes to the schedule as part of an effort to help every team play in their 82 games before April 29th. This meant that 95 games had been scheduled between February 7th and February 22nd to ensure every team would have played all their games by the time the Stanley Cup Playoffs began.
At the end of the season, the statistics will determine if a team can make it into the playoffs. A team needs to have at least the 3rd most wins in their division. The teams with the 4th and 5th best records will achieve wild-card status. These two teams compete for the playoffs’ fourth and final spot.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs
Sixteen of thirty-two teams compete in the Stanley Cup each season. The matchups are determined by how the teams compare to each other. The top four teams in each division go into the first round.
The playoffs have the structure of a bracket format, where teams must first beat out the others in their division to advance. After beating all other division teams, they will play the other division in their conference for the conference champion title. The two conference champions then go off to play each other. The winner of this best-of-seven series wins the Stanley Cup.
The first round sees teams facing off against the other teams in their division. The team in the wild-card spot will compete with the top seed, a.k.a. the team with the best record in the division. For the first two rounds of playoffs, the higher seeded team will get to play in their home arena.
The second and third seeds in each division also play against each other in round one, meaning that two of the four teams in each division advance to round two. After this round, the best team in each division will play against each other for the conference champion title.
The third round, the conference finals, see the best two teams in the conference facing off. In 2022, the Eastern conference teams were the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers. Tampa Bay won the series to go on to the Stanley Cup final.
In the Western Conference, the contestants for conference champion were the Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers. The Avalanche eventually overtook the Oilers, allowing Colorado to advance and compete against Tampa Bay.
By the time this part of the season starts, teams sometimes have very similar records. If teams tie in regards to how many teams they’ve beaten and lost to, the league considers more than just their wins and losses. To qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, The league still considers many additional statistics, including:
The most amount of points scored throughout matchups in the regular season.
If two organizations have the same win-loss record, the number of points scored during their regular season games against each other will factor into their chances of qualifying. If more than two teams are tied, then the team with the highest percentage of points scored will determine which one qualifies.
The total difference of goals scored for and against each team.
Another way for two teams to break a tie if it occurs is to compare how many goals each team has scored and how many goals they have let other teams score on them. The team with the smaller disparity between the two totals will advance to the playoffs.
If the two teams are tied in their win-loss record, amount of points scored throughout the season, and the difference in goals scored for and against them, a single game is played to break the tie. The game is played under Stanley Cup regulations.
COVID-19 has changed the structure of the NHL’s season in recent years. The NHL made many changes to the schedule due to the pandemic. These changes began with a remote draft. This change has carried over into the 2021-2022 season.
The number of games played by each team was also affected. For example, in the 2019-2020 season, teams were unable to play in a full 82-game season, and play was postponed indefinitely.
When the season finally resumed in May of 2020, the teams’ statistics at the time of the suspension were considered, and the top 16 teams, based on that information, played in a modified version of the Stanley Cup finals.
Divisions have also been switched around significantly over the league’s history. This rearranging has impacted rivalries and scheduling. Not only this, but teams have been changed and relocated multiple times.
In the most recent season, The NHL introduced an entirely new team called the Seattle Kraken to the league. They replaced the Vegas Golden Knights, who were excluded from the league entirely. The Golden Knights were a part of the league for almost four years. They were also introduced to the league as an expansion team.
Many rivalries have come to exist in the NHL. These rivalries are sometimes a result of the teams involved having a history of competitive bouts. In the Atlantic Division, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a deeply rooted rivalry with the Ottawa Senators. This is because the teams have faced off in the playoffs on many occasions.
The rivalry has been referred to as the Battle of Ontario, and in the early 2000s, the teams met four times in the playoffs. The Senators lost every one of these matches, sparking the rivalry that still exists today.
In the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference, a prevalent existing rivalry is the one between the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders. This rivalry is aptly named “The Battle of New York.” The teams are in the same division, and unlike other New York sports teams, they play each other frequently. Constant fights break out in the stands when these two teams play.
The Western Conference also sees its fair share of rivalries. One that exists in the Central Division is the Chicago Blackhawks and the Minnesota Wild. This rivalry sparked after the teams played against each other during playoffs in 2013. The Blackhawks won the series and have continued to do so in the three years following this initial matchup. As a result, the two teams have formed a rivalry.
The Pacific Division also has many rivalries, a prevalent one being the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers. This rivalry is sometimes referred to as “The Battle of Alberta” and exists due to the two teams being located in Edmonton, Canada. The two teams have frequently competed for the superior all-time record since the 1980s.