- 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.
- Game 2 will be played on Saturday, June 18 at the Ball Arena in Denver.
- The Avalanche have won Game 1 in their last six playoff series.
TRIGGER WARNING: This article and subsequent articles in this series will have extensive discussion of math and mathematical concepts. You have been warned.
The Colorado Avalanche needed overtime to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday night in Denver. ESPN has posted one of their ‘debate’ type articles asking ‘whats does Game 1 mean for the rest of the series?’. You can read their conclusions at the link above but in this article we’ll take a historical look at the same topic. How important is it for a team to win Game 1 of a best of seven playoff series? 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.
That is definitely an impressive winning percentage but it’s important to consider a significant ‘alternate causality’. Teams that play Game 1 of a best of seven series at home typically have ‘home court/field/ice advantage’. Teams that have home advantage usually (though not always) earn it via some type of performance based metric–usually their regular season W/L record. The various pro sports leagues have used some screwy scheduling formats throughout the years so we don’t want to assume that the team playing Game 1 at home necessarily has home advantage.
Furthermore, we don’t want to assume that a team with home advantage earned it through some performance based criteria. We’ve seen an example of the latter within the past decade. Between 2003 and 2016, Major League Baseball awarded home field advantage in the World Series to the team representing the league that won the annual All Star Game. Thankfully, they scrapped that silly format before the 2017 season and now the team with the better regular season record gets home field advantage in the World Series.
With the above caveats in mind–you can probably already see the most significant ‘alternate causality’ that needs to be considered. Most of the time, the team with home advantage plays Game 1 at home *and* most of the time the team with home advantage earned it through their performance (usually regular season winning percentage based). As a result, the teams that most often play Game 1 at home (and by extension, win Game 1 at home) are the superior team–at least from a quantitative standpoint. There’s definitely instances throughout sports where a team in a matchup with the superior record isn’t the qualitatively ‘better’ team. That said, I think everyone would agree that on balance the teams that win the most games are often the better team.
That means the ‘Game 1 victory’ might be a classic case of ‘correlation’ versus ‘causation’. The team with the better record (eg: ‘quantitative superiority’) usually has home advantage. The team with home advantage usually wins Game 1 of the series. The team that wins Game 1 usually goes on to win the series. That makes this statement true:
The quantitatively superior team usually wins a best of seven playoff series.
You can thus make a case that winning Game 1 of a best of seven playoff series is of little intrinsic value. It’s just a by-product of the reality that the qualitatively superior team usually wins a best of seven playoff series. That was the case in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals–Colorado had more points than Tampa bay during the regular season (119 to 110) and won five more games. Obviously, this isn’t the only metric to evaluate a team but it is a significant one. For that reason, it’s not a good idea to conclude that winning Game 1 is intrinsically deterministic of a series winner.
Keeping this important concept in mind, we’ll dig deeper into the performance of Game 1 winners starting in the next article.