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Higher seed is no guarantee of first-round success

by John Kreiser
So your team has the home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Does that really make a difference?

The short answer: Yes. The long answer: Maybe not as much as you'd think.

This is the 17th year the National Hockey League has used the current format of having the top eight teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. Never in the first 16 have all eight higher-seeded teams advanced to the second round.

Nor is a top seed a guarantee of moving on. The 32 No. 1 seeds since 1994 have advanced 23 times, a .719 percentage that sounds impressive until you consider that that the 1-8 pairings match the best and worst teams in the conference -- the average differential between the first and last qualifiers is just under 23 points in the Eastern Conference and 28 points in the West.

In contrast, the National Basketball Association, which uses the same playoff format, has had only two top-seeded teams -- Miami in 1999 and Dallas in 2006 -- knocked out in the opening round in the last 16 years.

And here's a word of warning for the Vancouver Canucks, who celebrated their first Presidents' Trophy before playing their final home game: The regular-season champion hasn't made it past the first round since 2008. Both the 2009 San Jose Sharks and the 2010 Washington Capitals lost in the conference quarterfinals -- the Sharks to Anaheim, a team they eclipsed by 26 points during the regular season; the Caps to Montreal, which finished 33 points behind Washington last season.

In all, four of the last 10 regular-season champions haven't made it through the first round.

But if finishing first is no guarantee of winning, being the second seed in the opening round is downright dangerous. Just 17 of the 32 No. 2 seeds under the current format have gotten out of the opening round, the worst showing of any seed. However, second-seeded teams have been improved -- last year's first-round loss by New Jersey to Philadelphia was the first by a second-seeded team since 2006.

No. 3 seeds have done better, going 20-12 since 1994. But the trend for third-seeded teams is the opposite of second-seeded clubs: In the past five years, No. 3 seeds have lost six of 10 series, including the last four in the Eastern Conference.

Perhaps surprisingly, No. 4 seeds are almost as successful in the opening round as top seeds -- even though fourth-seeded teams are playing teams much closer to their success rate. Fourth seeds have won 22 of the 32 series against fifth seeds, just one less than No. 1-seeded teams have won against eighth-seeded teams.

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