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Tiebreaker Scenarios for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Eastern Conference playoff race is coming down to the wire with the Hurricanes in the thick of it. We take a look at how the playoff tiebreaker scenarios would play out between the Hurricanes and every other relevant team in the hunt.

Jamie Kellner

It’s the final week of the NHL season and the Carolina Hurricanes are in the middle of a race for one of the final Wild Card playoff spots. Yes, this is stressful — but above all else, it’s fun. If you told me in December that this hockey team would be challenging for a Wild Card spot in April, I’d look at you like you were crazy. But here we are!

The team has had a tough go of it lately against some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. We knew that the brutal March schedule was going to catch up to the club eventually, and it unfortunately happened just as competing teams picked up steam. A regulation loss last night in Pittsburgh made it nearly impossible for Carolina to jump into the top three in the Metro, and also allowed for the Blue Jackets to leapfrog into the first Wild Card spot.

With three games left in the season, just two points separate the Blue Jackets (94 points), Hurricanes (93 points), and Canadiens (92 points) in the standings, and only a pair of those three teams can make the playoffs. In the event of a tie in the season ending standings on April 6th, there are a series of tiebreakers in place. Here they are, in order of precedence:

  1. The first tiebreaker is Regulation and Overtime Wins (ROW). When the league moved to a shootout format, they wanted to place some more emphasis on winning hockey games before the skills competition. If two teams are tied at the end of the season, ROW is the first tiebreaker.
  2. If teams are also tied in ROW, the next tiebreaker is head-to-head records, meaning the team who earned more points in head-to-head matchups would win the spot. There’s a caveat here in the event that the tied teams didn’t play the same amount of head-to-head games against eachother with home ice advantage (example: the Canes played the Sabres three times this season, twice on home ice). In this situation, the points earned in the first home game by the team with a greater amount of home games played are excluded from the tiebreaker in order to balance the home-ice advantage factor. In the event of a three-way tie for a spot, the team with the highest percentage of available points accrued against other teams in the group of three would claim the spot (the uneven head-to-head home games rule applies in this case as well).
  3. In the event of a tie in points as well as the previous two tiebreakers, the third tiebreaker is goal differential. The teams with the greater differential between goals for and goals against for the entire regular season wins the tiebreaker. A shootout win in this situation counts for one goal for, while a shootout loss counts for one goal against.

Tiebreaker Scenarios

Pittsburgh Penguins

After the loss in Pittsburgh last night, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Carolina end up tied with the Penguins next weekend. But for the sake of completeness, we’ll investigate this. The two teams are currently tied in ROW, and the Penguins claimed the head-to-head tiebreaker with a regulation win last night.

If the Canes somehow end up tied with the Penguins (they’re four points below Pittsburgh in the standings right now with the same number of games played), they’d need to have more ROW in order to win the tiebreaker. The good news here is that if the Canes miraculously closed a four point gap between themselves and one of the hottest teams in hockey over the course of three games, they’d probably come out on the winning side of ROW too.

New York Islanders

So you’re saying there’s a chance? The Islanders currently sit at second in the Metro and six points ahead of Carolina with 99 points in 79 games. If the Islanders somehow lose out in regulation and the Hurricanes win out, they’ll be tied in points. If at least two of those three Hurricanes wins were in regulation, they would own the ROW tiebreaker (Islanders currently sit on 42 to the Hurricanes 41).

Let’s say that the Hurricanes won only one of those three final games in regulation with the other two coming in the shootout, and the Islanders still failed to collect any points in their remaining three matchups. In this incredibly unlikely scenario, the tiebreaker would go to the Islanders, who easily won the season series with a record of 3-1-0.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The probability of a tie after 82 games with this team is much more likely than with the previous two. Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets hold a three game lead in ROW over Carolina. If the team was somehow able to win out and close that three game ROW gap with Columbus, the head-to-head series is a push with both teams winning twice in regulation in the four game series.

The goal differential tiebreaker would likely go to Columbus, who has a 9 goal lead in differential with a +25 to Carolina’s +16. The goal with respect to the Blue Jackets has to be finishing above them in the standings, because tying with them in points would almost guarantee losing the tiebreaker.

Montreal Canadiens

Montreal currently sits one point behind Carolina and has one of the toughest schedules in their remaining three games with games against the Capitals, Lightning, and Maple Leafs. But they just beat a very good Jets team that’s still fighting for playoff positioning atop the Central Division, so it’s certainly not safe to count them out yet.

Finally, some (kinda) good news! The Canes currently own the ROW tiebreaker with 41 to Montreal’s 40. With two out of Carolina’s remaining games against teams eliminated from playoff contention, they should have a good chance to hold onto that superior ROW. If they somehow ended the season tied in points and ROW, the Canadiens own the head-to-head tiebreaker, despite the Hurricanes’ 2-1-0 overall record.

Because the Canadiens played two games out of the three on home ice, the first matchup on November 27th in Montreal is omitted from the tiebreaker calculation (despite the fact that the Hurricanes won that game). The Canes took two points (1-1-0) in the other two games, while the Habs picked up three points (1-0-1). It doesn’t exactly seem fair that the Canes would get punished in this situation for winning on the road, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The takeaway in this scenario is that if the Hurricanes tie the Canadiens in points, they better have more ROW wins.