Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, left, falls as he tries to pass the puck while under pressure from Los Angeles Kings center Phillip Danault during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Hockey fan or not, there is a good chance you have heard someone make this claim: The Stanley Cup playoffs are the best postseason in sports. I am not here to argue whether that statement is true (it is) or convince you to watch playoff hockey (you should), but I am here to be your shepherd if you feel like you need one.

Haven’t watched a single second of the NHL this season? Barely have any idea of what's going on or what to watch for? It doesn't matter. The entertainment and chaos that comes with playoff hockey is for everyone. You just have to take that first step and be willing to let the intensity overcome you.

As long as you're ready and willing, I'm here to help hold your hand through the experience and answer the burning questions that likely need to be answered.

Let's start with the basics.

[ More Bally Sports National: Home | News | Videos ]

What is the format?

The playoff field comprises 16 teams, eight teams from the Eastern Conference and eight teams from the Western Conference. Each conference is made up of two divisions, with the top three teams from each division qualifying for the postseason along with two additional wild cards. The top seed in each division plays a wild-card team in the first round, while the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in each division face off.

From there, the format operates like a regular bracket. There’s no re-seeding, and it’s best-of-seven series through all four rounds of the playoffs, with a 2-2–1-1-1 home-ice structure (Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 at the higher seed; Games 3, 4 and 6 at the lower seed).

What are the matchups?

Honestly, it seems like you could easily Google that yourself, but since you’re already here and I’m a gentleman …

Eastern Conference

  • Boston Bruins vs. Florida Panthers
  • Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
  • Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Islanders
  • New Jersey Devils vs. New York Rangers

Stanley Cup playoffs preview: Why Panthers will have trouble with historic Bruins team

Western Conference

  • Colorado Avalanche vs. Seattle Kraken
  • Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild
  • Vegas Golden Knights vs. Winnipeg Jets
  • Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings

Stanley Cup playoffs preview: Expect a slugfest between Stars and Wild

Who should you root for?

If you don't have a team, here’s an elevator pitch for every playoff qualifier.

Eastern Conference

1. Boston Bruins: They just finished the best regular season in the history of the league, going 65-12-5. They have a pretty awesome lineup top to bottom, including one of the best goal scorers in the game in David Pastrnak (61 goals). They play a surgical, relentless brand of hockey without many weaknesses. They also drink beer for breakfast. A relatable Goliath.

2. Carolina Hurricanes: They’re a fun, fast-paced team that is awesome at controlling possession and throwing a ton of shots on net, even if those shots struggle to find the back of the net at times. They tend to have a great home-ice playoff atmosphere, which is probably because their fans tailgate like it’s college football. But be careful about making fun of them on Twitter — Carolina fans love being offended and will eat you alive.

3. New Jersey Devils: This is a pretty young team that took a massive step forward this season and has a lot of fun players to watch. They’re on the smaller, more inexperienced side (first playoff appearance in five years), but they’re fast and exciting and could be ready to make some noise. Also, I went to college with their mascot. That’s not really relevant, but I thought you should know.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs: Everyone loves to laugh at them for being postseason failures — they haven’t won a series since 2004 and haven’t won a Cup since 1967 — and hating the Leafs is almost a rite of passage for most hockey fans outside of Toronto. That being said, they have a very good team and have a decent shot to expel those demons! (No, really. I’m being serious.)

5. New York Rangers: This team has some sex appeal. The Rangers had a big trade deadline that saw them acquire aging offensive stars in Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko, and some were quick to wonder if that made them a “super team.” They’re really fun to watch offensively, but they don’t play great team defense, which is OK because they have one of the best goaltenders in the world in Igor Shesterkin.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning: Three straight Stanley Cup Final appearances (and counting). They won the first two during COVID seasons and then lost last year to the Avalanche. The team isn’t quite as good, but Tampa Bay generally still has the same core. That makes the Lightning worth taking seriously.

7. New York Islanders: Honestly, they’re not that good and snuck into the playoffs largely due to having one of this season's best goaltenders (Ilya Sorokin), but the Islanders have beaten the odds to put together surprisingly deep playoff runs in recent years. While their fan base isn’t the largest, it’s rabid and full of fun with likable, blue-collar degenerates.

8. Florida Panthers: They’re starving for some postseason success and had a pretty strong finish to make the playoffs. They score a lot but don’t play a lot of defense or get great goaltending, which doesn’t typically translate to success this time of year. They’re also playing Boston, so the outlook isn’t great. But rooting for an underdog is fun, as is watching Matthew Tkachuk, who is on the MVP shortlist.


Stanley Cup playoffs preview: Can Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin stop Hurricanes?

Western Conference

1. Vegas Golden Knights: There are quite a few parallels between the Golden Knights and the city of Las Vegas itself. At their heart, both are just cutthroat businesses with lots of glitz and glamour obfuscating the view. (I can’t believe I just used the word "obfuscate" in a hockey guide for novices, but I digress.) Both have been known to be a bit streaky. Both have plenty of attractions — some a little washed-up and past their prime — but most importantly, they're typically going to be a memorable experience … for better or for worse.

2. Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers are like the Los Angeles Angels. They have two generational talents (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) yet haven’t won a damn thing with them, and it’s been kind of depressing. However, Edmonton put together a good run last year and enters the playoffs as the hottest team in the West. McDavid is the most talented player to ever play the sport, and somehow his stock is still rising, probably because the pieces around him are starting to pull their weight.

3. Colorado Avalanche: After winning the Cup last year, the Avs still managed to win their division this season despite an onslaught of injuries. They may not be as scary as they were last season, but they still have some of the best players on the planet (Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen). Also, they're about as healthy as they’ve been all season. The defending champs could flip the switch and become a dominant beast once again.

4. Dallas Stars: They have one of the best top lines in all of hockey and a legitimate superstar in Jason Robertson, so that’s a decent place to start. They also have one of the better goalies in the league (Jake Oettinger), so they have some good sleeper material.

5. Los Angeles Kings: They’ve been on the rise and are looking for immediate revenge against Edmonton, the team that ousted them from the playoffs last year. Their biggest strength is probably team defense, which may not be the most sexy quality but it's worth taking seriously.

6. Minnesota Wild: Listen, they’re from Minnesota, so you know right off the bat that misery is in the DNA. Let’s check the chart and — yup, there it is — the Wild have failed to get out of the first round in their past six playoff appearances. I’m not saying there’s nothing redeeming about this team — Minnesota has an electric star (Kirill Kaprizov) and is very good defensively and in goal — but do you really want to put your eggs in the basket of a team that was one of the worst offensively this season? It just seems like a bleak investment.

7. Seattle Kraken: The Kraken are a pretty awesome comeback story. Long story short: Last season was their first and they sucked; this season, they made a few tweaks, and suddenly they're pretty good! Seattle plays with speed and tenacity, has pretty strong depth and scores a bunch. Its biggest weaknesses are a lack of game-breaking star power and goaltending stability. Both tend to matter a whole lot in the playoffs.

8. Winnipeg Jets: The Jets kind of got dragged into the playoffs on the strength of outstanding goaltending by Connor Hellebuyck, but they also had plenty of talent underperforming in the second half. If everything clicks at once, it could be fun to watch!


Stanley Cup playoffs preview: Tough task for Kings vs McDavid and Oilers

What if you don’t want to root for a team and just cheer for chaos?

OK, now we’re talking. Chaos is the lifeblood of playoff hockey, so here are a few avenues of hilarity.

Bruins lose in the first round: Even I, as a lifelong Bruins fan, have to admit it would be objectively hilarious if Boston had the best regular season of all time and then immediately got rolled in the playoffs. It was funny when it happened to the Lightning in 2019, and it would be funny now.

Leafs lose in the first round … again: Obviously.

Leafs finally win a round and then meet the Bruins in the second round: Personally, I’m very invested in this storyline. Boston has been Toronto’s boogeyman for the past decade, so it would be very funny if the Leafs FINALLY got through the first round just to meet an all-time Boston team on the other side.

Kraken oust the Avalanche and Philipp Grubauer steals the series: Seattle is the most lopsided underdog of the first round, so a first-round series win over the reigning champs would bring chaos no matter what. However, Grubauer, the former Avs goalie, hasn’t been good since leaving Colorado for Seattle. Having him be the X-factor would be incredible.

Golden Knights and Kings both advance: Speaking of goaltenders going up against their former teams, Jonathan Quick meeting the Kings in the second round would be quite juicy. Quick was a franchise icon in L.A. and was quite angry after being unceremoniously traded by the Kings last month.

Winner of Rangers-Devils faces the Islanders: That first-round series between New York and New Jersey is going to be incredible, but if the winner then moves on to take on Long Island? We’ll be blessed with almost a month of civil war in the tri-state area.

How do I know if the playoffs are for me?

Well, there’s only one way to find out. The first round tends to be the craziest and most fun, so I would recommend jumping on board immediately and seeing how you like the experience. But, as a warning, be prepared to feel immense anxiety and lose some sleep even if you don’t have a dog in the fight.

If you give it a shot and end up not enjoying the circus? Well, that’s OK. I suppose it’s not for everyone. Just know that you’re an idiot and I’ll likely never have an interest in speaking to you again.

Featured Podcast

See all