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Jeff Paterson: The most important game

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks

The first? Third? Fourth? It kind of goes without saying, the seventh.

So which is the most important game of any Stanley Cup playoff series?

It’s a question that gets trotted out and kicked around repeatedly this time of year and it seems there are as many theories around the National Hockey League as there are undisclosed injuries come playoff time.

Oh sure, the first one is important because no team ever wants to trail in the playoffs and the fourth game will often tell a story because one team is either in full control (or finished) or the series is dead even with three games to play. But these are the playoffs where every shift is crucial, so obviously every game has great significance, too. But it seems impossible to suggest that any one game means more than any other until a series is settled.

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Some will say that a playoff series doesn’t truly begin until a home team loses because at that point there has been a shift in home ice advantage. That’s a little more along the lines of my thinking, but with the Stanley Cup field filled out with the best teams in hockey, all are more than capable of winning both at home and on the road. And you’ll certainly see over the next few months, many series will require the prevailing team to win not once, but twice, in the other team’s building. So I’m not convinced that the first road win in a series is terribly significant.

Never a believer in one singular game – save for a seventh and deciding game -- having any more importance than any other in a lengthy series, I have always held the belief that there are two games that swing any post-season match-up. And what I look for is the first team to win consecutive games at any point in a best-of-seven series.

Obviously, if the team with home ice advantage wins the first two games out of the gate, then that team is very squarely in the driver’s seat with a 2-0 lead forcing its opponent to rattle off wins in four of the next five.

But somewhat surprisingly, over the past two playoff seasons, the home team hasn’t been able to take care of business and win both games all that often. Only 57% of the time (17 of the 30 playoff series in 2008 & 2009) did the higher-seeded team jump out to a 2-0 series lead. But to drive home my point, in 15 of those 17 instances, the home team that managed to take control with back to back wins went on to win the series.

However, since the home team seems to sweep the first two games of a series barely more than half the time, consecutive wins in a series can come at any point. Should the lower seeded team drop a series opener on the road, but then come back in the next game to draw even. That team then heads home with a chance to win back to back and that’s when any series starts to get my attention. Because if that lower seeded team finds a way to win Games 2 and 3, it sets itself up to take a commanding 3-1 series lead in game 4.

Playoff hockey is about exerting a team’s will on its opponent and trying desperately to plant that seed of doubt. While the regular season standings give everyone in the hockey world something to judge the two teams by prior to the start of a series, once the puck drops those standings really don’t mean much. It quickly becomes a battle of determination and a desperate attempt to make opponents question themselves and their approach to the games and the series.

Playoff hockey is also all about adjustments and doing whatever is necessary to bounce back from any defeat. That’s why it seems so difficult to grab hold of momentum and keep it very long. Each game is its own entity within a series and each game takes on a life of its own. So momentum plays a role in series, but it’s more likely to be seen in stretches of any game rather than over the course of a lengthy series.

Again, that’s what makes winning consecutive games so difficult and also so important. Overall, over the past two playoff runs, the team that has won consecutive games first in any given series has prevailed 83.3% of the time (25/30).

So to be certain, every team in the chase for the Stanley Cup wants to come firing out of the chute and jump all over its opponent. But keep in mind that, more often than not, that first win doesn’t mean much unless a team can back it up with another the next time out.

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