- Florida holds a 1-0 lead over Carolina in the NHL Eastern Conference Finals.
- Game 1 was a titanic battle that was finally decided near the end of the fourth overtime period.
- Winning the first game in a best of seven series is a positive though not insurmountable advantage.
It was midway through the second overtime period of tonight’s epic battle between the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers that I started to wonder ‘how important *is* a first game win’? In theory, winning Game 1 is a big deal–particularly for the road team since it allows them to ‘steal home ice advantage’. On a practical level, it’s better to win than lose Game 1 but it isn’t an insurmountable edge (or disadvantage depending on which team you’re on).
To get a more concrete idea of the significance of Game 1, we have to go to the numbers. All of the information on Game 2 and series past performances are from the excellent website WhoWins.com which has been bookmarked in my browser for over a decade. This site has a wealth of series data from all of the major North American sports leagues that use the seven game series. It’s all broken down on a game by game and full series basis and for every situation imaginable. We’ll start with the ‘macro’ and drill down after that. Overall–for all teams in all sports in all locations at any stage of the playoffs–the Game 1 winner goes on to win the series 70.5% of the time (1069-448). The edge for Game 2 is minimal, with the Game 1 winner taking the second game 53.9% of the time.
Next, we’ll consider a few qualifiers for the above information. Home teams that win the opening game of a best of seven series go on to win 78.3% of the time with a Game Two victory percentage of 64.4%. For road teams that win Game One, the numbers are dramatically different. They only win Game Two 33.7% of the time (174-343) though they do hold a 55.3% win rate for the series. For teams playing in a semifinal round (and that’s what the Conference Finals are) the numbers are similar with one interesting exception–a road team that wins Game 1 at this stage has a 61.8% winning percentage for the series.
Now, we’ll focus specifically on the NHL. You’ll often see a road team win Game One of a series, the home team win Game Two and go on to advance from a seven game set. Here’s how the numbers break down. Overall in the NHL, Game 1 winners win Game Two 53.3% of the time and win the series 68.3% of the time. A home team in this scenario wins Game Two 62.1% of the time and has a series win percentage of 74.7%. That’s slightly less than the ‘all sport’ numbers but not anything significant. A road team that wins Game 1 in pro hockey has a Game Two record of 38.3% and a series record of 57.3%. That’s slightly better than the ‘all sport’ numbers but once again, nothing especially significant.
At the Conference Final round of the NHL playoffs, Game 1 winners are 85-77 in Game 2 for 52.5% and go on to win the series 67.3%. Home teams are 45-40 (61.9%) and 76-29 (72.4%) for Game 2 and the series while road teams are 20-37 (35.1%) in Game Two and 33-24 (57.9%) for the series.
Pretty much what we figured at the outset. On balance, it’s better to win Game 1 than to lose Game 1 but it isn’t a guarantee of a series victory nor is it an insurmountable obstacle to overcome. The more conditional we get with our numbers the more important it is to keep in mind that we’re dealing with an ever shrinking sample size. Additionally, this data includes everything from 1905 (the year of the first best of seven series) to the present. In the NHL, the importance of home ice advantage during the playoffs has diminished in the past couple of decades.