How Many Playoff Rounds In Hockey? [Updated!]

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Hockey fans have plenty to talk about as the season winds down. Not only is the playoffs almost here, but so is the end of the season. Finishing with more than a few games still left to play can make for some exciting nights. But, unfortunately, not all playoff rounds last for multiple games. In fact, in recent years there have been fewer and fewer games left in the season once the conference finals have begun. This trend will continue into next season if popular opinion is any indication. Why is there a drop in the number of games in the post-season?

Why Are The Post-Season Rounds Short Now?

For decades, the post-season in hockey was quite the opposite. Once one team won a series or tournament, they’d immediately move on to the next round. This was great for the fans as it meant more games, and therefore more excitement, were likely to occur. It also worked well for the players as they were guaranteed at least a few days off following each game. This gave them time to recover from the physical demands of the season and prepare for the next round.

Things changed at the end of the 21st century. With the expansion of the NHL and the rise of international competition, the league was faced with the need to adjust their playoff format to suit the new world of hockey. This began with the introduction of the divisional playoffs. Divisional playoffs force teams to play one less game than in the regular season. While this sounds like a drawback, fans can rejoice that their teams have more opportunities to win.

What is the advantage of playing one less game? More games mean more revenue for the owners. The National Hockey League is a for-profit organization and will do everything in their power to make sure their business is as profitable as possible. They also know that fans will come back for more once the novelty of the first few playoff rounds wears off.

The Number Of Games Drops In A Sudden And Dramatic Fashion Once The Conference Finals Begin

Since the start of the 2012-13 season, there have been fewer and fewer games left in the season. It’s safe to say that everyone expected the post-season to be cut short since the majority of the games are now meaningless. In fact, the average amount of games left in the season has decreased by more than a full day since the start of this year. Where exactly does the time go?

Let’s take a look at the schedule as it stands today, beginning with the conference finals. (Please note: All times Eastern.)

  • NHL Hockey Schedule – 2012-13
  • Game 1 – April 15, 8 p.m. (Eastern)
  • Game 2 – April 17, 8 p.m. (Eastern)
  • Game 3 – April 19, 8 p.m. (Eastern)
  • Game 4 – April 21, 8 p.m. (Eastern)
  • NHL Hockey Schedule – 2013-14
  • Game 1 – April 13, 8 p.m. (Eastern)
  • Game 2 – April 14, 8 p.m. (Eastern)
  • Game 3 – April 16, 8 p.m. (Eastern)
  • Game 4 – April 18, 8 p.m. (Eastern)
  • NHL Hockey Schedule – 2014-15
  • Game 1 – April 11, 8 p.m. (Eastern)
  • Game 2 – April 12, 8 p.m. (Eastern)
  • Game 3 – April 14, 8 p.m. (Eastern)
  • Game 4 – April 15, 8 p.m. (Eastern)

Here’s a visual representation of how much time is scheduled to be spent in the post-season. (Note: Divisional Series games were not included on this chart as they are now completely meaningless in terms of determining who will compete for the Stanley Cup.)

  • The graph above tracks the number of games left in the season for each day since Oct. 1, 2012. (GamesPlay.com)
  • The amount of time spent playing each round of the post-season is mapped out below. (GamesPlay.com)
  • Since the start of this year, there have been fewer and fewer games between periods. (Graph courtesy of Google)
  • The same holds true for the playoffs. While the divisional series and first-round matchups are far from over, the second round and beyond have seen fewer games. (Graph courtesy of Google)
  • There is still plenty of hockey to be played this season. The Stanley Cup Finals, for example, will feature the best of the best from the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions. (CBA)
  • While the post-season typically sees teams rest their key players, they will inevitably get back on the ice for one last game. It would be a shame to have all that energy used up just to determine who will play in the All-Star game. (NHL)

Which Conference Is The Strongest?

Going back to the topic of fewer games in the post-season, one of the main reasons why is due to the parity in today’s league. There are simply dozens of teams that can compete for the Stanley Cup and other playoff rounds. Teams have even joined leagues in other countries to allow for additional competition.

Based on recent performance, fans can easily determine which conference is the strongest. The Metropolitan Division has been on a mission all year long. Led by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Metropolitan Division has now won 11 of their last 12 games. Their only loss came in the most recent game against the Ottawa Senators. (Graphic by Christopher Hart).

If the season ended today, the Penguins would be favored to win the Metropolitan Division and advance to the next round. In fact, they currently lead the division with 59 points. The next closest team, the New York Islanders, has just 54 points. So, basically, in the two months leading up to the playoffs, the Metropolitan Division has been the best in the NHL.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic Division has been a complete mess. After a hot start to the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have won just three of their last 12 games. It’s fair to say that there haven’t been a lot of bright spots in the Atlantic Division this year. (Graphic by Christopher Hart).

The Boston Bruins, who sit in first place with 77 points, have been one of the few teams that have managed to keep up with the rest of the division. But even they have slowed down a bit in March. The New York Rangers, who sit in second place, are only two points ahead of the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs. So, at least in the Atlantic Division, it’s quite unclear who will qualify for the playoffs this year. (Graphic by Christopher Hart).

Why Are The Wildcard Teams The Favorites?

Based on the above, it should come as no surprise that the two teams that earn a spot in the playoffs as a result of a random selection are the favorites to win it all. (Wild Card Games) In the 2016 playoffs, it’s the Minnesota Wild vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets. (Graphic by Christopher Hart)

The Minnesota Wild are a perfect example of a team that has taken the year off. Going into the last month of the season, they had only won three games. On March 10, they finally snapped their three-game losing streak with a win over the Colorado Avalanche. Since then, they have continued their winning ways by defeating the Dallas Stars, the Anaheim Ducks, and the Chicago Blackhawks. (Graphic by Christopher Hart)

The Columbus Blue Jackets, on the other hand, are a team that has been playing non-stop since the day they were founded. Since that day, they’ve only lost nine games and have won 28. (Graphic by Christopher Hart)

In the two months leading up to the playoffs, the Blue Jackets have faced off against some of the greatest teams the NHL has ever seen. They’ve battled the Edmonton Oilers, the Boston Bruins, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. But their most memorable match, in the eyes of many, was against the Chicago Blackhawks. (Graphic by Christopher Hart)

The Blackhawks, led by Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, are arguably the greatest team ever assembled. They had previously defeated the Blue Jackets in the 2017 playoffs, but that was a different matter altogether. This time around, the Columbus Blue Jackets will have their shot at revenge. (Graphic by Christopher Hart)

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