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Standings Tall

What you need to know about team points and the NHL standings, including why an overtime win is better than victory via shootout

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ /

There's a lot to learn from the NHL standings, whether you are a newbie fan or hockey diehard.

Let's start with the basics. The standings are typically presented by division, starting with the Eastern Conference (per alphabetical order). The Metropolitan is listed first, then Atlantic (apparently not per alphabetical order). The Metropolitan includes 2018 Stanley Cup winner Washington, all three New York area teams (Rangers, Islanders and New Jersey Devils), Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Carolina and Columbus.

The Atlantic division features defending 2019 Eastern Conference champ Boston, plus Montreal, Toronto, Florida, Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Buffalo and Detroit. That adds up to 16 teams in the East.

The Western Conference is next, starting with the Central division (apparently back to alphabetical order). The Central consists of 2019 Cup winner St. Louis along with a passel of rivals: Chicago, Dallas, Colorado, Nashville, Minnesota and Winnipeg. This is the only division with seven teams instead of eight.

The Pacific division finishes up the divisional standings format with current division leader Vegas (going into weekend games), Arizona, three California teams (LA Kings, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks) plus a trio of western Canada entries (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton). When NHL Seattle starts play in 2021-22 as the league's 32nd franchise, Arizona will move to the Central division to form four eight-team divisions. 

The divisional standings format is the default mode because the first 12 teams to qualify for each spring's 16-team playoffs derive from the first-, second- and third-place teams in each division. That covers six of eight spots in the Eastern Conference and same for the West. 

Next it gets a bit more complicated because the fourth-place finishers in each division are not guaranteed to qualify for the playoffs. The final two spots in each conference are awarded to the two remaining "Wild Card" teams in the conference with the best record. It could be the fourth-place teams from each division or two from the same division (fourth- and fifth-place finishers). This Wild-Card format, sometimes labeled "Playoffs" by media, keeps more fans engaged and hopeful. 

That's why most media outlets list NHL standings for both "Division" and "Wild Card"-prompting newbies to ask hockey-fans friends to explain, hey, why the two formats? Here's a quick example: The Chicago Blackhawks, who won three Stanley Cups in the just-finished decade, are dead last in the Central Division. But the team's fans might take heart that the 'Hawks are within a four- or five-game winning streak of being atop the wild-card standings. 

Fun fact: North American sports vernacular is "standings" while European soccer fans refer to team places in their leagues as "tables."  

Let's turn to the columns in NHL standings, especially the concept of team points. When an NHL wins a game, it is awarded two points. With an 82-game regular season schedule, there is a maximum of 164 points for any team. If NHL teams surpass 100 points, it almost always qualifies them as a top-three finisher in their divisions. The top team each year is usually above 115 points. Last season, Tampa Bay finished with an incredible 128 points. 

This is where is gets even more complicated. You can lose in the NHL and still gain points. If you lose in regulation-three 20-minute periods-then the loss garners zero points. But if the game is tied after 60 minutes, each team is in position to earn at least one point in the standings. The game could be won in the five-minute overtime or extend to shootout in which each team gets three penalty shots or "breakaways" with just the shooter bearing down on the goaltender. Best of three wins the shootout; if the shootout goals are equal after three attempts each, then the team continues each round until one player scores but the opponent does not. 

Losing in overtime or by shootout still provides one point for loser and two points for winner. If you hear hockey analyst, coach or player refer to "three-point games," this is what they mean. When a game goes to overtime or shootout, the two teams collect three points between them.

Here's the catch and where the standings provide more intrigue. If a team wins in overtime, it is more valuable than winning in the shootout. The points reward is the same-two points-but winning in overtime is considered a "better" win and is tallied in a column labeled "ROW," an acronym for "Regulation and Overtime Wins." When the regular season ends, it is not uncommon for two teams to finish with the same number of team points in the standings. The ROW column might mean the difference between making the playoffs or going home for the summer. 

Starting this season, the first tiebreaker is regulation wins or the "W" column in the standings. The second tiebreaker (when teams share the number of victories in the W column) is which team has more ROW compared to a team with more shootout wins and/or overtime losses to pad its team points total. If the deadlocked teams have the same number of wins and ROW, the third tiebreaker is which team has the most total wins, including shootouts.

For the next month or two, fans can project whether a team looks promising for a playoff spot or digging a deep hole at the bottom of the standings. But now matter where a team is positioned, a full NHL standings can reveal even more about your team's trends. You can determine if a team has played fewer or more games played (GP). You can track wins-losses-OT records, which means number of wins (W, one points), losses (L, no points) and OT (overtime losses, one point). Example: Washington started the weekend 28-9-5 for a total of 61 points (28 x 2 + 5 OT x 1 =61).

Along with the straight numbers, the NHL standings provide data that analytics experts use to determine if a team is playing better/worse than its team points. For instance, goal differential is the number of goals scored by the team minus the goals against. A positive goal differential is typically associated with teams higher in standings, while net-negative goal differential might show that team in a higher place in the standings is headed eventually for demise.

More numbers in the standings to study: An extended NHL standings will chart a team's record at home and away. This is always a fascinating statistics in team sports; some coaches and players contend their teams pick up energy from a boisterous home crowd (not always case in home records) while other coaches and players say road trips can bring a team together to focus on the need to win games down the stretch of the regular season.

Two more columns with stories within stories: How the team has played the last 10 games, not only to check out your squad but to determine if competitors are trending up or down. Plus you can check out the "Streak" column to determine if a team is a on a winning run or struggling to get wins (but the latter might still be gaining a few points for losses in overtime or shootouts).

One final note about the NHL standings. Coaches will say they are not doing any "scoreboard watching" but, well, that's probably not true. Like fans, coaches and, yes, players too are checking out both the division and wild-card standings on a regular if not nightly basis to see where they, well, stand. They look at streaks and "last 10" and who is racking up ROW. They are learning a lot. 

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