The National Hockey League is considered the top hockey league in the world. There are 31 teams in the league, and their number one objective each season is to win the coveted Stanley Cup. The NHL is also a very popular league to bet on with many different bets to make and tons of games on in the long season and playoffs. 

In this guide, we'll explain how NHL games work and how the league is structured. You'll also learn a little about the history of the NHL and its impact on popular culture.

Rink, Goals and Teams

There are two goals on each side of the ice rink. The rink is 200 feet (60.96 m) long by 85 feet (25.91 m) wide. The objective of the game is to score more goals than the opposing team. 

In an NHL game, there can be six players on the ice for each team, including a goalie, forwards (wingers and centers), and defensemen. The puck is a small vulcanized rubber disc. Players can pass the puck or skate with it to get into the opponents’ zone and score. Using slap shots and wrist shots, players attempt to score the puck. 

Players cannot bat the puck into the goal with their hands but can have it tipped into the goal with any other part of the body. NHL games are fast and furious, and many say it is the best sport to watch live. 

The boards around the ice rink keep the puck in continuous play unless there is an infraction or time runs out.

How Long is a NHL Hockey Game?

An NHL game is 60 minutes long, divided into three periods. The team with the most goals after the third period is the winner. 

If the score is tied at the end of regulation, there is a three-on-three five-minute overtime period where the first goal wins. If the game is still tied after the OT period, three players from each team have a penalty shot. 

The team with the most successful penalty shots wins the game. After three players, if the number of shots is the same, one player from each team continues to take a penalty shot in sudden death. 


Players can be substituted during the game, and instead of one player coming in, a new line comes in. For example, in the first period, the first line defensemen are in. Then the coach makes a substitution where the new defensive line, usually two players, comes on the ice. 

Goalies are the only players on the ice that are generally not substituted. However, it is not uncommon to be “yanked” for bad play in goal or injury. 

A few examples of minors in NHL games include:

  • Holding.
  • Holding an opponent’s stick.
  • Kneeing.
  • Tripping. 
  • Interference.
  • Unsportsmanlike conduct.

A few examples of Majors in NHL games include:

  • Checking (hitting) from behind.
  • Spearing (with the stick).
  • Fighting.
  • Holding the facemask.
  • Fight instigator.

One of the highlights for many hockey fans is when players fight. The NHL tried to crack down on it, but it still happens. 

Unlike other sports, there is a pause in the NHL where the players are allowed the fight. It starts by “dropping the gloves,” a hockey term when the players throw off their gloves and start to fight. 

Misconduct and Match Penalties

There are also more extreme penalties given if the infringement was excessive. A misconduct penalty will put the player in the penalty box for ten minutes. A match penalty will expel the player from the game. 

There can be delay penalties where the play continues if the team that did not commit the infringement has the puck and is advancing to the opponents’ goal. The play will continue until the offending team gains control of the puck, and then the game is stopped so that the penalty can be handed out. 

The Penalty Shot

In some instances, a penalty shot is given to the opposing team. This is where play stops, and a player goes one on one, unimpeded, with a shot on the goalie. A penalty shot is given when a player has a clear, unimpeded path to the goal and is taken down from behind, or when a player intentionally knocks the goal off its posts to avoid the opposing team from scoring. 

The Power Play

When penalties are given, the opposing team has a one-man advantage, which is called a power play. It extends as long as the time allowed for the penalty.

Teams can also go two players down. If a team has a player in the penalty box and it commits another penalty, the player committing the second infringement is also sent off the ice. The team that was not penalized will therefore have a temporary five on three advantage. 

The defensemen are the primary defenders playing behind the blue line to protect their goal. However, they can go all over the ice and score the puck. In the NHL, there are more defensive-minded defensemen, as well as some who look to score. The players pass the puck to each other, intending to push forward and score the puck. 

The goal, which is 72 inches (180 cm) wide by 48 inches (120 cm) deep, has room behind it for the puck to be played. Forty inches at the highest point in front of the goal is a semi-circle is the crease, where opposing players are not allowed to play the puck. But the referee in the game has discretion for this rule. 

When there are smaller infractions, such as when the puck goes over the boards, there is a face-off. At specific points on the ice rink, there are face-off areas where the referee drops the puck while two players try to gain control. 

Strategies and Tactics 

There are many strategies and tactics for NHL games, with the three forwards skating around the ice and trying to control the puck. They then move forward to work for shots on goal. 

Strategies come into place to try to get an advantage over the opponent. There are defensive, and offensive strategies coaches come up with trying to play to the strength of their team. 

Different tactics can be used for defense and offense. For example, if a team has a two-goal lead, their players will drop to the defensive side of the ice to make it harder for them to score. 

On the other side of the coin, teams can play a more offensive tactic if they are down and need to score to get back in the game. 

Strategies and tactics are also for NHL betting, trying to get an advantage when wagering on the action on the ice. Many of these things have to do with handicapping games seeing what a team’s strategy and tactics are compared to their opponents. 

Bettors look for these types of things to get a little more information on what team has the advantage of the game and what the better team to bet on is. 

From 4 to 32 Teams

In the beginning, the NHL only had four teams in Canada until 1924 when the Boston Bruins joined the league. From 1942 to 1967, there were only six teams in the NHL referred to as the Original Six.” 

This included the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the 1967 NHL expansion, six more teams joined the league. 

The NHL expanded to 18 teams in 1974, 21 teams in 1979, and 30 teams from 1991 to 2000. Then, in 2017, the 31st team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, joined the league. In 2021, the Seattle Krakens will also join, making the league 32 teams. 

NHL Strikes

One of the black marks on the sport has been the work stoppages, or strikes, as there have been four of them since 1992. In 2005 there was no Stanley Cup awarded due to the NHL lockout.

The Stanley Cup

The Stanley Cup is the oldest professional sports trophy in North America. It is therefore one that all NHL teams are keen to win. The Stanley Cup playoffs is an elimination tournament that runs from April until June. Teams play each other in a best of seven series where the winner advances. The last team remaining in the tournament wins the Stanley Cup, which is that season’s champion. 

Eight teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs, depending on point standings. In the NHL, three points are awarded for a win, and one point if the game goes to overtime. The top three teams from each of the divisions in the conference qualify for the NHL playoffs, and the remaining two teams are the ones that have the most points in the conference. 

In all of the rounds in the NHL playoffs, the team with the higher seed is given home-ice advantage, meaning they will host four games in the series while the other team hosts three games. In the Stanley Cup Finals, the team with the most points out of the two in the regular season is awarded home-ice advantage. 

The teams in the NHL by conference and divisions are: 

Eastern Conference 

Atlantic DivisionMetropolitan Division
Boston Bruins Carolina Hurricanes
Buffalo Sabres Columbus Blue Jackets
Detroit Red WingsNew Jersey Devils
Florida PanthersNew York Islanders
Montreal Canadians New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators Philadelphia Flyers
Tampa Bay Lightning Pittsburgh Penguins
Toronto Maple LeafsWashington Capitals
Eastern Conference NHL Teams

Western Conference 

Central Division Pacific Division 
Chicago BlackhawksAnaheim Ducks
Colorado AvalancheArizona Coyotes
Dallas StarsCalgary Flames
Minnesota WildEdmonton Oilers
Nashville PredatorsLos Angeles Kings
St. Louis BluesSan Jose Sharks
Winnipeg JetsVancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Western Conference NHL Teams

The Seattle Kraken will join the league in 2021, playing in the Pacific Division in the Western Conference. 

NHL Hall of Fame 

The NHL Hall of Fame was established in 1943 and has 289 members. While most are players, there are also coaches and executives, even some referees. 

There is a debate on who the greatest hockey player of all time is. Many believe it is Wayne 'The Great One' Gretzky, while others believe it is Gordie Howe. Gretzky holds a whopping 61 NHL records with 40 for the regular season, 15 for the Stanley Cup playoff, and six for the NHL All-Star Game. 

Other players who are often in the 'top 10 players of all time' include legends such as Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Mark Messier, Guy Lafleur, Bobby Hull, and Sydney Crosby, who is still active as of 2020. 

In the US 

Many of the players in the Hall of Fame are Canadians, but there are also plenty of American players too. Some of the top US players of all time include Jeremy Roenick, Hobey Baker, Jonathan Quick, Pat LaFontaine, Neal Broten, Biran Leetch, Patrick Kane, Brett Hull, Mike Madano, and Chris Chelios. 

Distinctive Elements 

While many of the NHL teams are in the United States, hockey is still the primary sport of Canada. All of the original teams in the league were from Canada, and the country is mad for hockey. While there are many players in the NHL from Canada, there are also some Americans, Russians, Swedes, and Finnish players, among other countries, in this truly international league. 


There are many stats for the NHL that are used by teams, pundits, and bettors alike. There are team and player stats, with player stats being used to determine the value of a player. Just like other sports, stats are always brought up when talking about great players. 

A few of the key team statistics are winning percentage, home/away win percentage, goals per game, goals against per game, power-play scoring percentage, and power play kill percentage. Some of the important player stats are goals per game, assists per game, and overall plus/minus. 

When a player is given a "plus" he is on the ice when his team scores an even-strength or shorthanded goal. The player receives a "minus" if he is on the ice for an even-strength or shorthanded goal scored by the opposing team. 

NHL statistics are also vital for the goalie position. The two most significant being goals-against average and save percentage.

Bettors should also check out stats when they are looking to handicap games. The aforementioned stats are essential to look at when researching games to try to get an edge on the winning bet. 

Popularity and Cultural Impact 

The NHL is the most popular hockey league in the world. The stars in the game are superstars in the sports world, especially in countries where hockey is popular such as Canada and Russia. The NHL is popular in the U.S., but it is probably the fourth most popular team sport in the nation after football, basketball, and baseball. 

The NHL players, the league itself, and the teams are also very active in the community, trying to help and raise social awareness about various issues. Most of the teams take part in charities and causes, and the same goes for the individual players. 


How many NHL teams are there?
There are 31 NHL teams right now, but that will increase to 32 thanks to the Seattle Krakens joining in 2021.
Where can I bet on NHL games?
You can bet on NHL games with any online sportsbook as long as online sports betting is legal in your state.
How long is a NHL hockey game?
An NHL game lasts for 60 minutes. This is divided into three periods of 20 minutes each.
About Ayden Fahlstrom
Ayden Fahlstrom author profile

Ayden loves sports. There is no doubt about that. He is a walking calendar when it comes to the latest events in sports. He has grown into the passion of writing about them, and settled into his role as a writer after many freelancing jobs. He can write about any sport out there! This is the guy!

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