The Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway tonight, and it is a good time to do a little comparison between the NHL and NBA in terms of their finals formats.
In 1985 the National Basketball Association changed its finals format to a 2-3-2 arrangement of the seven games -- Games 1 and 2, and Games 6 and 7 played on the higher-seeded team’s home court. The National Hockey League had a similar format in 1985 but moved to a 2-2-1-1-1 format the following year and each year thereafter.
In those 27 years since 1986 that the leagues have been employing different formats in their respective finals (26 seasons in the case of the NHL owing to The Great Lockout of 2004-2005), they have paved somewhat different roads in crowning champions.
At first blush, there seems to be no difference between the leagues in terms of the season’s ultimate game. In the NBA the Larry O’Brien Trophy was awarded to the league champion in the vanquished team’s arena 12 times in 27 seasons. In the NHL the Stanley Cup was presented to the captain of the league champion 13 times in the opponent’s rink. Away teams have done quite well in clinching titles.
Look deeper, though. In the case of the NBA 11 series in 27 years went only four or five games, those in which the higher-seeded team was the “away” team. In eight of those 11 instances the higher-seeded team won. Meanwhile, in the NHL there were also 11 series in 26 seasons that went four or five games. But there is a difference here. In the NHL, Game 4 is played on the lower-seeded team’s ice, Game 5 on the higher-seeded team’s ice.
Did it make a difference? In six four-game sweeps over the past 26 seasons – that fourth game played on the lower-seeded team’s ice – the home teams and the away teams split those six decisions, three apiece. In five-game series – games played on the higher-seeded team’s ice – the home teams won three times, the away teams twice. In short series, at least in these 11 instances, it hardly seems to have mattered much what seed or on whose ice the Cup-clinching games were played.
In long series seeding starts to matter more. Over the last 27 seasons the NBA has played 16 series that have gone to at least a Game 6, meaning that those series always end on the higher-seeded team’s floor. In those 16 instances, 12 times the higher-seeded team (the home team) won. And here is where the format seems to come into play, if only a bit. The championship was won in the NBA finals 12 times in Game 6 – again, the home team’s floor – and in eight of those instances it was won by the home team.
But then go to the Game 7 results. Only four times in 27 seasons has an NBA final gone to seven games. In each of those instances covering a span of 23 seasons (from 1988 to 2010) the home team won Game 7. Finals series do not generally reach a Game 7 because home teams clinch in Game 6.
On the other hand, the NHL has had 15 long series (lasting six or seven games) over the past 26 seasons. Seven of them were clinched in Game 6 – on the opponent’s ice. This is where seeding takes over. The higher-seeded team won six times in seven on the opponent’s ice.
The difference carries over into Game 7 as well. Eight times in the last 26 seasons (six times in the last 11) the Stanley Cup finals have gone to a Game 7. Six times the home team – the higher seeded team – won the Cup, although it is worth noting that the two instances in which the visiting lower-seeded team won the Cup came in the last two Games 7, in 2009 (Pittsburgh, in Detroit) and in 2011 (Boston, in Vancouver).
The differences between the NBA and NHL in format seem to be that the 2-3-2 format that grants NBA teams the extra late home game in a long series acts as an accelerant to the effects of being a higher (and presumably better in most years) seed. Higher-seeded teams are more likely to end their series in Game 6, if not sooner. In the NHL, seeding matters, but format seems to serve to extend series in the form of more Games 7.
In historical context, here is what you might look for in the Boston-Chicago series. First, no team has been swept since Detroit swept Washington in four games in 1998. In the 13 Stanley Cup finals since, the Cup has been won by the higher-seeded team ten times. And it did not matter where that Cup-clinching game is played. Twice the higher-seeded team clinched at home Game 5 (2002 by Detroit, 2007 by Anaheim), four times on the road in Game 6, and four times on home ice in Game 7.
This trend is mitigated somewhat by the history since the league’s lost 2005 playoffs. In seven tournaments since then, the lower-seeded team has won the Cup three times, all of them coming in the last four playoffs, twice in Game 7. But is that the start of a new trend, or an anomaly? We just hope the NHL doesn’t follow in the NBA’s footsteps with the 2-3-2 format.
We’ll take Chicago in six.