The Finer Points: Breaking down playoff race tiebreakers

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor

The end of the NHL’s 2011-12 regular season is now only four days away and every team has three or fewer games remaining on their schedule. With the playoff races so close, it almost assured two teams will end up with the same amount of points. In the Eastern Conference, Buffalo is only two points behind Washington, so they could very well end up with the same amount of points with tie-breakers deciding who sneaks into the post season and who gets a head start on their golf game.

The Western Conference, specifically the Pacific Division, is even crazier. Only four points separate four teams and only three will make it to the first round. Any more than one loss the rest of the way will keep a team from qualifying, but even a perfect record may not be enough. In this edition of The Finer Points, we’ll take a look at the NHL’s tiebreaking procedure and see which of the four teams in the Pacific, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Jose or Phoenix, has the advantage in the final week of the season.

1. Fewest number of games played.

The first tiebreaker is, ultimately, pointless. While it works well as a barometer in the middle of the season, it is useless once the season is over as all teams have played the full 82-game schedule. So we’ll just ignore this one.

2. Highest win total, not including shootouts.

In an effort to encourage teams to decide the outcome before the skills competition, the NHL decided to eliminate shootout wins as part of the tiebreaker. In the past two seasons, you’ll have noticed a ROW column in the standings; this totals up the number of regulation and overtime wins.

As of now, the Stars hold the advantage here with 35 regulation or overtime wins. The Kings and Coyotes are tied at 34 apiece and the Sharks are last in that category with 33. That means Dallas needs just one regulation or overtime win to ensure they get in using the tiebreaker, as San Jose would not be able to catch them.

3. Greater number of points earned in head-to-head matchups.

This tiebreaker gets a little more complicated if teams have played an odd number of games against each other as according to the official NHL tiebreaking procedure: “If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included.” However, all four of these teams playing in the same division ensure they will have played six games against each other, three home and three away, so there is no need to factor in the odd game.

Los Angeles has the advantage here as they have won their season series against Dallas 8 points (3-1-2) to 6 points (3-3-0) and Phoenix 8 points (3-1-2) to 7 points (3-2-1). They currently hold a lead against San Jose 5 points (2-1-1) to 4 points (2-2-0), but with two games remaining the series can go either way. One regulation win will ensure the tiebreaker goes to Los Angeles. Phoenix has lost the season series to Los Angeles, but have defeated Dallas 9 points (3-0-3) to 7 points (3-2-1) and San Jose 9 points (4-1-1) to 4 points (2-4-0). San Jose has defeated Dallas 11 points (5-0-1) to 2 points (1-5-0). Dallas, having lost all three series, is at a major disadvantage should they have to go down to the third tiebreaker.

4. Goal differential.

If two teams still remain tied at this point, it comes down to goal differential. For the second straight tiebreaker, Dallas is at a complete disadvantage as they are a minus-8 on the season, the only one of the four teams in the minus column. Phoenix is a plus-6, San Jose is a plus-16 and Los Angeles is a plus-17.

The NHL has never had to resort to a fifth tiebreaker, but there could potentially be the need for one this season.

The Sharks are headed into the final home-and-home down to the Kings in points 93-92. A regulation win by San Jose and a shootout win by Los Angeles will give both teams 95 points and an identical 3-2-1 record against each other, with one shootout win apiece. If San Jose records just one more goal than Los Angeles in the remaining two games, the four tiebreakers will not be enough to determine who gets the higher seed.

Unfortunately, there’s no information available as to what would happen should all four tiebreakers fail to solve anything. If everything works out just so, we may see a one-game playoff for the first time in NHL history.

*Editor’s Note: Hockey is a very fast-paced game and the large number of sometimes-complicated rules can make it hard to follow for a casual/new viewer. The Finer Points is a weekly column that will explain the subtleties and complexities of hockey in an easy-to-understand manner so fans can spend more time enjoying the game and less time trying to figure out what is going on.  

Is there a facet of the game that has you scratching your head? Send an email to to get a clearer picture of what is happening on the ice.


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