- The Colorado Avalanche defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 in overtime to take Game 1 of their best of seven Stanley Cup Finals series.
- Teams that win Game 1 of a best of seven playoff format go on to win the series a majority of the time.
- Game 2 will be played on Saturday, June 18 at the Ball Arena in Denver.
In our previous article, we used the Colorado Avalanche’s Game 1 Stanley Cup Finals win over the Tampa Bay Lightning as a jumping off point for a discussion on the importance of winning the first game of a best of seven playoff format series. The raw numbers are crystal clear: teams that win Game 1 of a best of seven format go on to win the series the majority of the time. As always for this type of analysis we’ll head to the excellent WhoWins.com website for all of the historical data.
We’ll go from the ‘general’ to the ‘specific’ and start with the overall record of Game 1 winners in all sports, all series and at all venues. Note that throughout this article I’m not including the 2022 NBA or NHL playoffs. Overall, teams that win Game 1 of a best of seven playoff format they go on to win the series 70.8% of the time with a record of 1050-434. Teams that play and win Game 1 at home go on to win the series 78.4% of the time with a record of 768-211! While we’re at it, visiting teams that win Game 1 go on to win the series 55.8% of the time with a record of 282-223.
Most of the previous article was dedicated to considering the ‘alternate causality’ of those records. More specifically, that it isn’t so much that winning Game 1 is important to winning a playoff series–instead, it’s simply a ‘byproduct’ of the fact that better teams usually have home advantage. In other words, an example of ‘correlation versus causation’. This is an important concept to remember in any form of sports handicapping but for now we’ll put it aside and look specifically at the series performances of teams that win Game 1.
We looked at the overall numbers in the quote above, but now we’ll drill down a bit and consider how teams perform at various stages of the playoffs. The WhoWins.com website breaks down seven game playoff series into these categories:
These labels are necessary since leagues call the stages of their playoffs various things. For example, in the Stanley Cup playoffs:
- Stanley Cup Finals (Finals)
- Conference Finals (Semis)
- Conference Semifinals (Quarters)
- Divisional Round (Preliminaries)
In Major League Baseball, the ‘preliminary round’ would be the ‘Wild Card Game’ which isn’t a best of seven series. The Divisional Series would be the quarters, the League Championship series would be the semis with the World Series obviously being the finals. Like most sports, baseball has expanded their playoff format as they’ve expanded the size of their league(s). For much of its history, Major League Baseball had only sixteen teams with eight in each league. In 1961 the American League expanded to 10 teams and in 1962 the National League followed suit. They kept the same playoff format until the NL and AL added two more new teams in 1969–this is when divisional play began. This added another round of playoff competition–each league had two divisions (East and West) and they would play each other for the right to compete in the World Series. In other words, they went from just having ‘Finals’ to having ‘Semis’ and ‘Finals’. The important takeaway: different stages of pro sports playoffs have had different meanings throughout time.
Teams in preliminary rounds across all sports that win Game 1 of a best of seven format go on to win the series 69.6% of the time with a record of 295-129. Teams that win Game 1 at home win the series 80.1% of the time (213-53), with teams that win Game 1 on the road winning the series 51.9% of the time (82-76).
Moving on to the quarterfinal rounds, teams that win Game 1 go on to win the series 72.7% of the time with a record of 311-117. Teams that win quarterfinals Game 1 at home have a series record of 80.7% (239-57), with Game 1 road winners taking the series 54.5% of the time (72-60).
Overall, teams that win Game 1 of a best of seven semifinal matchup win the series 70.7% of the time which is right in line with the previous two playoff stages. Teams that win Game 1 at home win the series 75.9% of the time (176-56) and teams winning Game 1 on the road take the series 61.5% of the time (80-50). Interesting that semifinal winners of Game 1 at drop down to a 75.9% series win rate while the Game 1 road winners jump to 61.5%. At this point, there are obviously fewer and fewer series to draw from so this might just be a result of a smaller sample size.
Teams that win Game 1 of a best of seven finals go on to win the series–and their league’s championship–69.6% of the time. Teams that win Game 1 at home win the series 75.7% of the time (140-45) while teams that win Game 1 on the road win the series 56.5% of the time (48-37). The series record of Game 1 home winners is nearly identical to the semifinals, though Game 1 road winners drop back down close to where they were the first two rounds.
The drop in the series performance of home teams from the prelims and quarters (80.1 and 80.7 percent) to the semis and finals (75.9 and 75.7 percent) might have something to do with the higher quality of teams involved at this juncture. A championship level team that loses Game 1 at home is often able to recover from that setback. This isn’t always the case with lower quality teams. Alternately, it might just be a function of smaller sample size.
Next up, we’ll drill down and look at the series performance of Game 1 winners in the individual sports. After that, we’ll conclude by combining everything.