Explaining the general structure of the NHL

How is hockey played today and how have the rules changed?

A photo of the NHL hockey trophy, the Stanley Cup
Taking a closer look at three key elements of the game: puck drop, officiating, and the quest to Lord Stanley. Photo: Josh Appel / Unsplash

By: Greg Makarov, Sports Writer

Puck Drop and Play

Every NHL hockey game begins with the singing of the respective teams’ national anthems before the first faceoff. Faceoffs occur at the beginning of any play after the whistle has been blown. Both centers from each team meet in the middle of the circle on the ice. Once the referee drops the puck, both players attempt to use their stick to push the puck to a player on their own team.

Every game consists of three periods that are 20 minutes long. If there is a tie at the end of the third period, then teams move to five minutes of three on three overtime. If a goal is still yet to be scored, a shootout will begin. In a best-of-three shootout, each team is given a turn to try to score on the opposing goalie from centre ice. However, the player and the puck must always be in constant forward motion

If a deadlock still remains, the shootout continues until a team scores. The team that goes second always has a shot at redemption if the first team scores. Like a win in regular time, the winner walks away with two points. But the losers still walk away with one point for lasting until overtime.


There are two linesmen and two referees on the ice. Linesmen are responsible for offsides (entering before the puck) and icings, while referees deal with penalties (player violations of the rules). 

Although referees call penalties, it’s important to understand calls are ultimately based on the referee’s interpretation of the rules. So a tripping penalty in one game might not be called in another — this is unofficially dubbed “game management.”

There are a plethora of penalties and even severity markers when it comes to sending a player to the penalty box. Such as the two-minute-high sticking penalty being converted into a four-minute penalty if blood is drawn. There are also penalties for non-physical infractions such as delay of game, too many players on the ice, and unsportsmanlike conduct. These carry different punishments, ranging from 2 minutes to a misconduct (10 minutes).

In the early days, referees would have to make calls on the go and would not be able to change them afterwards. However, recently certain plays have become reviewable due to controversy in the playoffs when these plays were not caught in time. This prompted the NHL to review certain decisions if challenged by one of the coaches.


The playoffs are a different beast altogether. The whole league is split into two conferences: Eastern and Western. From there, the Eastern division is subdivided into the Atlantic and Metropolitan, while the Western consists of the Central and Pacific. 

In total, 16 out of 32 teams qualify for the playoffs. The top three teams from each division automatically make the playoffs. Then there are two wildcard spots that are open to the next best division members of each conference, extending the competition and creating balance among teams. 

When playoffs begin in April, the first ranked team in each conference battles eight (worst team), and so on, in a best-of-seven matchup. To win the Stanley Cup, a team must go through four rounds of the playoffs, knocking off the rest of the teams in their conference until the finals.

The Stanley Cup is widely regarded as the hardest trophy to win and even the best regular-season teams are not guaranteed to win anything. For example, the 2018–19 Tampa Bay Lightning won 62 of 82 games during the regular season, which tied the record for most wins ever in the regular season. The team had the league’s best goalie and one of the best defenseman and forward of the year and still massively disappointed fans, as they were swept in the playoffs by the lower-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.