Hockey Points System – How Do The NHL Standings Work?

Posted on April 15, 2024 by Dan Kent
Stanley Cup - Colorado 2001

The National Hockey League has often been criticized for its points system for various reasons. In this article, I will not only explain the hockey points system, but I will speak on the benefits and downfalls of the system overall. Keep in mind, there is also a player points system, one I explain in depth here.

Let's get right into it.

How does the point system work in hockey?

Currently, the NHL utilizes a point system that awards teams two points for a regulation win and zero points for a regulation loss. In addition, teams are awarded one point for getting the game past regulation time, and an additional point for either an overtime or shootout win.

You'll often hear players and teams stating, "It was good to get the two points" or "We didn't play well but managed to get the two points" In this situation, they're simply speaking on the win, as when you win in the NHL regular season, you are awarded two points.

At the end of the regular season, the NHL standings are used to determine which 16 teams make the postseason. The first criterion the league will use is simply total points. You will make the playoffs as a divisional seed if you have either the first, second, or third highest points in your division.

However, if you do not qualify for one of those three spots, two wild card spots will be played for. Both the Eastern Conference and Western conference will have two wildcard spots. The teams with the most points who did not qualify for a divisional seed will claim those two spots.

The points system is used on a conference and divisional basis, not league wide

Many fans new to watching the game may notice that a particular team in a division or conference may miss the playoffs despite having more points than other teams that have made the playoffs. This is because the NHL works on a divisional and conference basis, not league-wide. Yes, 16 total teams make the playoffs. However, it has to be eight from each conference.

A quick example will make this a lot clearer. Let's say the cutoff for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference is 99 points, while in the Western Conference, it is 95 points. A team in the Eastern Conference would miss the playoffs with 97 points, despite them being among the top 16 teams in total points.

How does the wildcard system work in the National Hockey League?

The wildcard system seems complex but is relatively simple. In the National Hockey League, there are four divisions. From those four divisions, the top three teams will make the playoffs. Because 16 teams make the Stanley Cup playoffs in the NHL, this leaves four spots for wildcard teams.

The wildcard slots are reserved for teams who did not perform well enough during the regular season to grab a divisional playoff spot. Because a total of 6 teams get division spots in their particular conference, there are two wildcard spots left for the remaining ten teams in the conference to fight for.

It does not matter what division the wildcards come from. You could have both wildcards from a particular division, making it so a total of 5 teams make the playoffs from that division and only three from the other division in the same conference, or it could be 4 and 4.

Wildcard playoff seeding

Once the playoffs start, the team with the most points in the conference will play the 2nd wildcard team, and the other divisional winner will get the first wildcard team. Remember, even though the 2nd place team in a particular division could have more points than the divisional winner from the other, the divisional winner still gets to play the first wildcard team despite having lower points.

For the wildcard teams, there is a chance that they will have to play their first and second round of the playoffs outside of their division, often called "crossing over." An example of this happening would be if the top team in the Eastern Conference were in the Atlantic Division and the 2nd place wildcard team was in the Metropolitan. In this situation, the Metropolitan team would "cross over" and play in the Atlantic division playoffs.

The knocks against the wildcard and divisional system

Before moving to a divisional system to grow rivalries and get the fans more interested in the game, the NHL would utilize a 1-8 system in each conference. This system was a lot simpler, with the number 1 team in the conference playing the 8th team, the 2nd playing 7th, the 3rd playing 6th, and so on.

This system was a much larger advantage for the top teams, as they were almost guaranteed a much weaker team in the first round and sometimes the 2nd if there was an upset.

With the current system, a division with multiple strong hockey teams could end up in two powerhouse teams playing against each other in the first round. An example, at least at the time I'm writing this, would be the fact the Atlantic division often ends up in Boston, Tampa Bay, or Toronto playing each other in each of the first two rounds.

An older example would be the Metropolitan division, where the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals often had to meet each other early in the playoffs. In contrast, they would have gotten much weaker opponents with the more traditional system. It makes the path to the Stanley Cup finals much more difficult than other divisions.

Many players, including superstar Sidney Crosby, have openly spoken about how they prefer the 1-8 format of playoff seeding.

How do you read hockey standings?

You aren't alone if you're on your favorite sports website and trying to read the standings but are confused by all the acronyms and abbreviations. Let's go over what all these mean.

GP: This is the total amount of games played by the team

W: Wins

L: Losses

OT: OT Losses

PTS: Points

RW: Regulation Win

ROWRegulation and Overtime Wins

GF: Goals For

GA: Goals Against

DIFF: Goal Differential. This is just the goals for minus goals against

HOME: Home Record

AWAY: Away Record

S/O: Shootout Record

L10: Record in the last ten games

How do tiebreakers work in the NHL standings?

If two teams are tied at the end of the NHL season, the league will use their regulation wins (the RW portion of the standings) to determine the team that makes the playoffs. They place less emphasis on a shootout win. 

This is primarily because a shootout is simply a series of penalty shots taken by an individual shooter, and a shootout loss doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on the quality of the team. Breakaways can often involve a lot of luck, and although the NHL does like the shootouts for excitement, they don't want them to decide who makes the playoffs and who doesn't.

For example, let's look at two teams and see who would make the playoffs:

Team A

Wins: 42

Losses: 34

OT Losses: 6

Points: 90

RW: 34

ROW: 37

Team B

Wins: 40

Losses: 32

OT Losses: 10

Points: 90

RW: 35

ROW: 39

Both teams have a total of 90 points. So, one could assume that team A, the team with 42 wins, would make the playoffs. However, this isn't the case. Although Team A has two more wins than Team B because they only won 34 of their 42 games in regulation, while Team B won 35 games in regulation, team B would be awarded the playoff spot.

What happens when teams both have the same regulation wins?

The NHL tie-breaking system runs through numerous options to continue breaking the tie. If both teams have the same amount of regulation wins, they will move on to regulation and overtime.

In this case, because Team B has won 39 games in regulation or overtime while Team A has only won 37, Team B, despite having fewer wins overall, would make the playoffs.

If they are tied in this manner, the NHL looks at the team with just the most wins, period. If again they're tied, it moves to head-to-head play. The team who got more points head-to-head than the other team will make the playoffs.

In the extreme circumstance the teams are still tied, they will both on to the team with the best goal differential. And finally, if that is tied, they will go by the highest-scoring team.

What is a 3-point game in hockey?

A 3-point game in hockey is when a regular season NHL game goes to overtime. Because a team is awarded a single point for being tied after 60 minutes of regulation play, the result of a team winning in either overtime or a shootout is the winning team getting two points and the losing team getting one.

The heavy criticisms of the three-point system

Many hardcore hockey fans do not appreciate the three-point system in the National Hockey League and advocate for the NHL moving to a points system which awards the winning team three points instead of two.

The reasons why hardcore NHL fans hate the three-point system are exactly why the NHL enjoys it, it creates more parity around the league, and more teams are competing for the playoffs near the end of the season. It keeps more casual fans interested and spending money on the middle levels teams.

For example, the Calgary Flames tied the all-time record in the 2022-2023 season with 18 total overtime losses. These 18 "loser points," as they call them, kept the Flames alive in the playoff race until nearly the end of the season. If the NHL were to utilize a system where a team gets three points for a regulation win, two points for an overtime win, and one point for an overtime loss, the Flames would have been eliminated from playoff contention much earlier.

Individual player points system in hockey

Now that we've reviewed the team standings concept regarding points, we can move on to the player points. Fortunately, the player scoring system is much easier.

How are points given in hockey?

Despite scoring goals being the more popular element of hockey, players are awarded a single point for both a goal and an assist. If a player scores 20 goals and 70 assists, they have 90 points on the season. If they score 70 goals and 20 assists, even though the 70 goals would be viewed as a much more significant achievement, they still have 90 points.

The player scoring the goal is awarded the goal, while the teammate that touched the puck before the player scoring the goal is awarded the primary assist. If necessary, the second teammate who touches the puck before the player who is awarded the primary assist touching it is awarded a secondary assist.

Assists are not necessary in hockey. Although a goal is always awarded, a goal can be unassisted. If an opposing team puts the puck in their own net, it will be awarded to the last opposing player who touched the puck, and it will be unassisted.

The individual player scoring system in the NHL is truly that simple.

Individual points-based awards

Two primary awards are given to the players from a points performance standpoint. One is the Art Ross Trophy, which is awarded to the player with the most points after the regular season is over. The other is the Rocket Richard Trophy, which is awarded to the player who scores the most goals throughout the NHL regular season.

A player can win both awards if they score the most points in the regular season and the most goals.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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