Skip to Main Content
Fan Engagement, Industry Analysis Articles, Media & Tech, Team Performance

Five-Game Roulette: Best-of-5 Series and the Unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

By: Ethan D. Cooperson

“We’ve worked all season for home-ice advantage, to have all of our great fans screaming for us. Now we have to take advantage of it.”

“We play a simpler game on the road. . . we’re not trying to make the pretty play. There’s no pressure on us.”

Those two mantras have long described the optimistic mindsets of NHL teams approaching postseason games at home and on the road, respectively. And they won’t mean a thing in 2020 with all postseason games being played in empty arenas in Toronto and Edmonton.

It’s a setup the league has never seen before, with the 24 qualifying teams hunkered down in the two hub cities, or “bubbles.” And by the time those clubs play their first game following the season restart, each one will have gone a minimum of 142 days without skating in a meaningful game. That’s an in-season pause that’s a month longer than the offseason for last year’s Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, who had 111 days between Game 7 of last year’s Final to this season’s October 2 opener.

While there’s no historical precedent for in-season pauses or neutral-site playoff games, one unusual element of this year’s postseason has been seen before in the Stanley Cup playoffs, albeit not for over three decades: the best-of-five series. NHL postseason formats have changed many times in the last century, with best-of-fives being used in the late 1920s through the early 1940s and again between 1980 and ’86. But since 1987, all playoff series have been best-of-sevens – until this year’s makeshift format was created.

The appeal of the best-of-five series would seem to be its unpredictability. The last two such series in the NHL concluded with Game 5s on April 15, 1986, and both saw the home team, the better-seeded team, go down. And while the St. Louis Blues’ road victory over the Minnesota North Stars might not have qualified as an upset – the teams were separated by two points in the standings – the other result certainly did. The Philadelphia Flyers, with a Wales Conference-best 110 points, lost to a 78-point New York Rangers team.

Islanders coach Al Arbour talks with top scorer Mike Bossy in 1982.

One of the most memorable best-of-five series of the 1980s didn’t produce an upset, but it came tantalizingly close to disrupting a dynasty. In their run of four successive Stanley Cups from 1980 through ’83, the New York Islanders faced elimination just once, and naturally it happened in an Eastern Conference five-game series. In 1982, as two-time defending champs, the Isles opened the postseason against a Pittsburgh Penguins team they had topped in the standings by 43 points, 118-75.

But after New York won the first two games by a combined 15-3 score, the Penguins won twice at home to force a fifth game on Long Island, which they led by a shocking 3-1 score with 6 minutes remaining. The champs needed two late goals to tie the game, which they won in overtime on John Tonelli’s goal. Dynasty preserved. Had that dramatic contest been the fifth game of a tied best-of-seven series, the drama would have been nowhere near the same.

That said, we were surprised to find that in NHL history, best-of-five series have been only slightly more likely than best-of-sevens to produce upsets. The chart below considers all series of either length since 1926-27, the first season in which the Stanley Cup playoffs were limited to NHL teams (prior to that year, the NHL champ faced a non-league team for the Cup). We consider an upset to be any series won by a team with an inferior regular-season points percentage.

We’ve also broken down the best-of-sevens before and since 1987, the season when that became the length of all series.

What’s striking here is that the likelihood of an upset in a best-of-seven has skyrocketed in recent years to nearly 40%. And perhaps this isn’t terribly surprising in a league whose postseason almost never goes according to form.

Blackhawks players watch as the 2013 Stanley Cup Championship banner is lifted to the rafters.

In the 11 years prior to this one, only one team won a Stanley Cup after finishing with the league’s top regular-season record, and that team, the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks, played in a lockout-shortened season. In the six completed seasons since then, every Cup winner has had to win at least one postseason series in which it did not have home-ice advantage.

Last year’s playoffs spoke loudly to the unpredictability of the postseason. Eight of the 15 series were won by the team with the inferior regular-season record. The shocker was the Tampa Bay Lightning, who tied a league record with 62 regular-season wins, which meant nothing in the playoffs, Literally. The club failed to win a postseason game, suffering a first-round, four-game sweep at the hands of the 47-win Columbus Blue Jackets. We’ll note that the team whose record the Lightning tied, the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, also failed to win the Cup, losing in the conference final.

The numbers tell us that parity and unpredictability are the rule in the Stanley Cup playoffs, so much so that best-of-sevens in the last 33 years have proven more likely to produce upsets than best-of-fives ever have. For the “qualifying round” in 2020, we have both factors in play: shorter series and an era of upsets. For good measure, we’ll throw in a four-month layoff and no home-ice advantage, as well as the prospect that the Cup-winning team can play as many as 33 postseason contests.

The “bubble” environment and empty arenas are uncharted territory for players – and the results of the games and series should prove equally difficult to foretell.

Enjoy this? Subscribe to The Analyst to receive five stories each Friday from Stats Perform. It’s free.