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The Home (Ice) Stretch

Home ice in the playoffs isn’t as important as you might think

The race for the first seed in the Eastern Conference was initially a runaway for the New York Rangers. Enter an 11-game winning streak for Pittsburgh and suddenly there was a one point difference between the East’s top two teams with fewer than ten games to go. Though the Rangers pulled away in the season’s final weeks, the value of the first seed has an interesting past. It’s worth noting to Rangers fans that home ice advantage throughout the playoffs hasn’t sprung an Eastern Conference team to the Stanley Cup finals since the lockout canceled the 2005 season.

As I thought about how few conference regular season champions made deep playoff runs in recent years, I decided to go one step further and check each of the past ten NHL playoffs to find out if there was a trend for how far the top seed has advanced in the postseason.

Statistically speaking, the first seed hasn’t proven all that important to making a run to the finals. The past ten seasons (not including the lockout season in 2004-05), only two teams have made the Stanley Cup finals from the East as the number one seed (Tampa Bay (03-04) and New Jersey (00-01)) while four teams have made the run to the finals from the West as the top team (Vancouver (10-11), Detroit (07-08), Detroit (01-02) and Colorado (00-01). Only six of twenty teams to earn a spot in the finals in the past ten years entered the postseason with the best record in their conference. Meanwhile, four number one seeds lost in the first round and half of the twenty top seeds were ousted without a Conference Finals appearance.

Two predictors have been a bit more reliable in deciding who qualifies for the finals than simply ending the regular season at the top of the standings over the past ten years. The President’s Trophy has provided a little more luck in predicting the postseason than simply taking the two number one seeds from each conference. The league’s regular season champion has won four of the past ten Stanley Cups. Of course with Vancouver taking the President’s Trophy for the second consecutive year one only needs to look back one year to find a regular season champion who couldn’t finish with a Stanley Cup. The other predictor to finding a good contender for the Cup is winning the division. Fourteen of the past twenty teams to qualify for the finals have won their division during the regular season en route to a championship.

From a more practical standpoint, the Rangers would probably rather see Ottawa then play the fifth seeded Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round based on the heated nature of the Flyers rivalry. Ottawa played unexpectedly well this season, and Milan Michalek scored 35 goals despite dealing with a concussion in the middle of the season. In a season when they hosted the All-Star Game, the Sens placed captain Daniel Alfredsson, super star defenseman Erik Karlsson, center Jason Spezza, rookie Colin Greening and Michalek all took part in the midseason break competitions. Goaltender Craig Anderson has only been to the playoffs once, falling in the opening round to the top seeded San Jose Sharks in 2010, but his .933 save percentage in six games seem like solid playoff numbers. The thirty year old net minder will seek to topple the Rangers again. Still, despite the talent on the Sentors, New York will be a heavy favorite to take the opening round.

So Rangers and Devils fans have some stats and practical ideas to mull over come playoff time. The Devils, the sixth seed in the East, will play the 3rd seed. As it turns out, the Devils might get the best draw of any team in the Atlantic Division when they meet Florida in the first round. The Rangers, on the other hand, don’t have great history on their side as the East’s top seed having failed to win the President’s Trophy. The Blueshirts must also face the possibility that they could face a Senators squad in the opening round that has the talent to upset the conference’s best regular season team in a seven game series.

Of course there are worse outcomes than getting a tough draw in the first round. You could be out golfing with the Islanders.