What is tie-breaking procedure in NHL (regular season)?

How are standings for the teams in the NHL table decided. What is used as a secondary criterion, if the teams have the same number of points?

For example, with one match remaining for Detroit and Washington the positions of wild card teams in Eastern Conference are

   |            | GP | pts | diff
 1 | Columbus   | 82 | 93  | +15
 2 | Detroit    | 81 | 91  | -11
 3 | Washington | 81 | 89  | -4

(GP = number of games played, pts = number of points, diff = goal difference)

I have seen in many sources that at this point the teams qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs are already decided and that Washington Capitals cannot qualify. But it is still possible that both Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings both finish at 91 points. (Capitals would have to win their last game, and Detroit would have to loose in regulation time.) Moreover, Washington would have better goal difference. So I wonder why they cannot qualify.

  • I am aware that this information is quite prominently displayed in several places. (And I am posting this question even though I know the answer). Since I have seen people asking similar questions online, I thought it might be good to have the answer also here - if sports.SE is supposed to become one of the best resources for this type of question. (To be more specific, I have seen that the question about Washington Capitals, which I included as an example. I have also seen someone asking whether Detroit can finish in front of Columbus.)
    – Martin
    Commented Apr 13, 2014 at 13:35

1 Answer 1


Briefly, the tie-breaking criteria in the NHL are (at least for this season):

  1. The most important is, of course, number of points.
  2. The second tie-breaker is number of wins in the games, which were decided in regular time or overtime. (I.e., the wins after shootouts are excluded.)
  3. The third tie-breaker is number of points that tied teams have in their games against each other. (This is slightly more complicated in the cases, when one of the teams had advantage of home ice during the season in the head-to-head games in more often than the other one. For details see below.)
  4. The fourth tie-breaker is goal difference.

I will quote the entire text from the NHL website:

Tie-Breaking procedure If two or more clubs are tied in points during the regular season, the standing of the clubs is determined in the following order:

  1. The fewer number of games played (i.e., superior points percentage).
  2. The greater number of games won, excluding games won in the Shootout. This figure is reflected in the ROW column.
  3. The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs. If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included. If more than two clubs are tied, the higher percentage of available points earned in games among those clubs, and not including any "odd" games, shall be used to determine the standing.
  4. The greater differential between goals for and against for the entire regular season. NOTE: In standings a victory in a shootout counts as one goal for, while a shootout loss counts as one goal against.

In the particular example of Capitals and Red Wings in the OP we have

   |            | GP | pts | ROW | diff
 1 | Columbus   | 82 | 93  | 38  | +15
 2 | Detroit    | 81 | 91  | 33  | -11
 3 | Washington | 81 | 89  | 28  | -4

Here ROW stands for regulation time wins plus overtime wins.

So even if Capitals tie Red Wings in the number of points at the end of this season, they will have less ROW.

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