The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season points and regardless of division. It is possible for one division to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends just three.
Seeding of the wild-card teams within each divisional playoff will be determined on the basis of regular-season points. The division winner with the most points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the fewest points; the division winner with the second-most points in the conference will play the wild-card team with the second-fewest points.
The teams finishing second and third in each division will play in the first round of the playoffs. There is no reseeding as the tournament moves to the second round and winners of that series advance to the conference championship series and the right to play is the Stanley Cup Final.
Where some people get confused is what happens in the second round. Again, there is no reseeding. Once the four brackets are set, they’re set for the first two rounds.
For example, let’s say St. Louis hangs on to first in the Central and earns the first seed in the West, and let’s say Phoenix is the second wild-card team. The Blues and Coyotes would play each other in the first round.
At the same time, let’s say Chicago hangs on to second in the Central and Colorado finishes third. The Blackhawks and Avalanche would play each other in the first round.
The winners of those two series would play each other in the second round, no matter what happened in the other Western Conference bracket.
So yes, there could be a second round of Blues-Hawks and, say, Kings-Wild, even if the Blues and Hawks each finish with more points than the Kings and Wild.
Would that be fair? You may not think so. But it would be similar to what used to happen back in the ’80s when the Oilers and Flames of the old Smythe Division would square off (or at least be on a collision course to square off, barring a first-round upset) in the second round, even when both had more points than any team that came out of the Norris Division.
The NHL is hoping that this system will create the kind of fierce rivalries that the 80’s produced, with division rivals seeing each other in the playoffs over and over.