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Which game in a NHL playoff series is really the must-win game?

You have seven to choose from.

USA Today/Pete Rogers Illustrations

With all of this spare time that is now on our hands, one thing many of us is doing is rewatching old games and playoff series. I notice repeatedly that announcers will emphasize a game as the most important in the series only to turn around the next game and say it again.

Look, I get it, the announcer has time to fill and the old mantra of “the most important game is the one we are playing” is prevalent but since time is on my side, I’ve really been pondering this question: Which game is most important in a seven game series?

For this I’m only going to dive into the NHL. I can imagine this answer being different between NBA, NHL and MLB, you have various home vs. away implications, various higher and lower seeds, travel etc…so for now, this is JUST NHL. The NHL adopted a best of seven game format during the 1974-1975 season at the same time they expanded to 18 teams across four divisions. The first round they played best of three then, during the quarter finals on it became best of seven games. A few years later the preliminary round was best of five and then in 1986-1987 the whole playoff format was a best of seven games format. The pros and cons to my theory on this.

Emotionally, it’s a death blow

Let’s start at the beginning. Game 1, you are getting acclimated, setting the tone for a series but honestly it’s the home team (and higher seed) trying to cement their first game.

Game 2 is a tossup, it could go to the away team and you are essentially leaving one city with a 1-1 series tie. Maybe it’s 2-0 home team (as it theoretically should be) and then of course there is a rare off chance it’s 0-2 and the away team has taken both games.

Then you get Game 3, the first game for the away team, and more often then not you are looking at a 2-1 home team/higher seed scenario in some fashion but even if it’s 1-2 and the away team has the upper hand, you enter THE game.

Yes, Game 4 is where it’s at baby. In my mind, Game 4 is the must-win game; It’s the deciding piece to a series becoming a 3-1 affair or a 2-2 affair and one team has just gained the momentum to teeing it up. Some will say Game 5 is the key but for me that pivotal game that TYPICALLY yields a 3-1 or 2-2 scenario is where I want to make my statement. On the off chance it’s a sweep then hey, you closed it out right there.

Funnily enough, stats don’t really support my gut thought.

Game 4 winners on average win the series about 58.5% of the time, which is way down from Game 1 (69.6%), Game 2 (71%) and Game 3 (65%). Meanwhile, Game 5 is 50% and 6 is 47%.

To some degree this makes sense, historically speaking, the teams that got off to a hot start in Games 1 and 2 have the lead and closed out the series. I feel, over the last 10 years we are seeing more and more of the latter though, teams are paranoid about becoming “that team” who either lost a 16 seed to a 1 or a 0-3 series or were up 28-3 and lost in a Super Bowl.

What say you? If you could guarantee your team wins one game in a playoff series, which one are you picking?