How To Read The NHL Standings? A Quick Guide


When I first started watching the NHL, I found it difficult to decipher the standings. While there are quite a few numbers to make sense of, the most important is “Points” and is abbreviated as “P” or “PTS.” Teams are ranked by the number of points they earn during the season.

The standings are simply the ranking of teams by points in descending order. Each division and conference has its own set of standings in addition to the main standings that tracks all 31 NHL teams. Point totals are usually the deciding factor, but the NHL does have tiebreaking protocols.

How Do NHL Teams Earn Points?

In the NHL, teams earn points in two ways. The first is simply by winning games. A win earns a team two points in the standings. The second way a team can earn points is by losing a game in overtime or in the shootout, for which they receive one point.

The NHL awards no points for losses in regulation time. In the past, ties earned a team one point, but ties were replaced by the shootout following the 2005 lockout and are no longer possible.

Most NHL games are comprised of three periods that are each 20 minutes long. Regulation time refers to these 60 minutes of hockey. Games that are tied after the first three periods go to sudden-death overtime and then into a shootout if a winner has yet to be determined.

What Do the Shorthand Abbreviations Stand for?

When I look through the NHL standings, I notice several abbreviations that could confuse new hockey fans. Deciphering those makes reading the standings very simple. We’ll take a look at what some of the most important ones mean. 

“GP” stands for “Games Played” so we can easily see how many games a team has played so far this season. It’s usually the first column listed in most standings tables. A typical NHL regular season consists of 82 games.

“W” represents “Wins” and shows us how many games a team has won during the season. As we know from above, a team earns two points for winning a game in any fashion.

“L” is short for “Losses” and tells us how many games a team lost during regulation time. Overtime and shootout losses are not included in this column.

“OTL” is “Overtime Losses” and tracks how many games a team has lost during overtime or a shootout. Remember a team earns one point for losing in overtime or the shootout. The NHL does not differentiate between overtime and shootout losses.

Total points, as we now know, are represented by a “P” or sometimes by “PTS” in the standings table. This will typically be the column we locate first, as every standings table lists teams by point total in descending order.

Understanding what these abbreviations are short-hand for provides us the necessary background information we need to make sense of the NHL standings.

How Do We Track a Team’s Record During the Regular Season?

An NHL team’s record will always be written in a string of three numbers separated by hyphens. The formula is W-L-OTL, and understanding that will make it quite easy to see how well a team is playing.

For instance, a team whose record is 24-16-5 has won 24 games, lost 16 in regulation, and lost 5 in overtime or a shootout. They would have 53 points.

What Other Information do the Standings Provide?

The NHL tracks far more than just a team’s wins and losses, and oftentimes standings tables include that information. Additional stats have their own abbreviations. Let’s take a look at those.

“ROW” is the shorthand for “Regulation or Overtime Wins.” This number excludes shootout victories. ROW becomes an important tie-breaker later in the season, as it minimizes the importance of shootout victories.

“GF” represents “Goals For” and is the number of goals a team has scored throughout the season.

“GA” is short for “Goals Against” and denotes the number of goals allowed by a team during the year.

“Diff” is the team’s “Goal Differential” and is calculated by subtracting a team’s GA from their GF. If a team has scored 100 goals and surrendered 75, their Diff is 25.

“L10” simply represents a team’s record in their last 10 games. It’s expressed by the same W-L-OTL formula as a team’s record. A team with a 7-1-2 record in this column has won 7 games, lost 1 game, and lost 2 games in overtime or the shootout in their last 10 games played.

Finally, “STRK” is a team’s current streak. If they’ve won their last three games, they’ll have an STRK represented by a W3. We can easily see they’ve won their last three games. Of course, if a team has lost their last three games, they’ll have an L3.

How Does the NHL Use the Standings?

Since we know teams are ranked by the number of points they’ve accumulated throughout the season and that teams earn points for winning games, it stands to reason that the teams at the top of the standings are the best in the league.

That’s why the NHL uses the standings to determine playoff eligibility. 16 teams make the playoffs every year, 8 from the Eastern Conference and 8 from the Western Conference. There are only 2 conferences in the NHL.

The conferences are also broken down into two divisions each, namely, they are the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions in the Eastern Conference and the Central and Pacific divisions in the Western Conference. The top 3 teams in each division are guaranteed a playoff berth.

The two remaining playoff spots in each conference are called the “Wildcard” and are given to the teams with the highest point totals that aren’t one of the top 3 teams in their division. Both conferences feature 2 wildcard teams. 

How Does the NHL Break Ties in the Standings?

At the end of the season, it’s not uncommon for two teams to have the same number of points. The NHL follows a graduated tiebreaking system to finalize the order of the standings.

For the first tiebreaker, the NHL uses ROW, which we know stands for Regulation or Overtime Wins. The NHL tries to limit the effect shootouts have on the standings because of their inherent randomness, so they’re excluded from tiebreaking scenarios.

If the teams also are tied in ROW, the next step is to look at their head-to-head record. The team that earned more points in the head-to-head games wins the tiebreaker. 

For example, if Boston and Toronto are both tied in points and ROW, but Boston won 3 games in their head-to-head matchup while Toronto only won 1, Boston would receive 6 points while Toronto would have only earned 2 points. Therefore, Boston would win the tiebreaker.

The final tiebreaker is goal differential. The team with the higher goal differential earns a higher spot in the standings. The NHL must use Diff as a tiebreaker rather than GF or GA because it rewards balanced play and not teams that are overly offensive or defensive in style.

How Did Covid-19 Impact the NHL’s Standings?

The NHL was quick to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and paused the 2020 hockey season on March 12th, with less than a month left to play. Fortunately, this meant every team had already played most of their games so determining playoff eligibility was a straightforward affair.

The NHL was forced to amend their tie-breaking rules, and points percentage became the first tiebreaker to normalize for the slight variation in the number of games played.

Right off the bat, the bottom seven teams in the standings were eliminated. Then, the NHL sequestered twelve teams from the Eastern Conference and twelve teams from the Western Conference in Toronto and Edmonton respectively. 

From there, the top four teams in each conference were granted a first-round bye, meaning they would move on to the second round automatically. These teams played against each other to determine the seeding at the top of the standings.

The rest of the playoff teams paired off and played a best-of-five series to determine who would advance to the next round and take on the conference leaders. Once all of the best-of-five series concluded, the NHL resumed the standard best-of-seven series format.

In the end, the Tampa Bay Lightning claimed the Stanley Cup, beating the Dallas Stars in six games. 

In Conclusion

While the NHL standings might look daunting due to all the abbreviations and numbers listed, it’s actually very simple to understand with a little background knowledge. In the NHL, points are the most important metric of team success and determine a team’s ranking.

Of course, the other stats listed in the standings table tell us a lot about a specific team’s performance. For instance, we can look at GF  and see if a team boasts a high-flying offense. All in all, the NHL’s standings are quite elegant and provide a lot of information at a glance.

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