It's unprecedented and it's unlikely, but this year, a Stanley Cup Playoffs play-in game is entirely possible.
Imagine a one-game playoff at the end of the NHL regular season to determine which team qualifies for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and which one goes home early. This year, it's actually possible. Though it's extraordinarily unlikely, there is a chance that the Philadelphia Flyers and the Florida Panthers would take part in the first playoff play-in game in the history of the NHL.
But before we get into what would need to happen for the tiebreaker game to happen, let's review existing NHL tiebreak procedures.
- If two teams have the same number of points at the conclusion of a season, the NHL first looks at ROW, which stands for regulation + overtime wins. This number could be the same as the overall win total, but rarely is—ROW purposefully excludes victories in the shootout.
- The next criterion is points in the season series between the two teams. If the series consists of an odd number of games, the result from the first home game of the team with more home games is excluded.
- Less confusingly, the final normal criterion is season goal differential.
If the two teams are still all square after all of that, the league will create a one-game tiebreaker. There will be an "equally-weighted draw" to determine which of the two teams gets home-ice advantage in this game, according to the league's release. And if that game is all square after regulation, playoff overtime rules come into effect: in other words, five-on-five sudden-death overtime until a goal is scored.
Got all that? OK, now let's set the stage for this potential show-stopper. There's only one spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs up for rent, and the Flyers are the current tenants with the Panthers knocking on the door asking for a showing. Here are their vitals as of Friday:
Flyers: 81 GP, 41-26-14, 96 points, 39 ROW, goal differential +3
Panthers: 80 GP, 42-30-8, 92 points, 39 ROW, goal differential -1
The Panthers and Flyers played each other three times this year, twice in Sunrise. The Panthers won both games in their home arena but, remember, the first result is discarded when it comes to tiebreak procedures, so for all intents and purposes the teams split the season series.
From here, a few things are clear: if the Flyers record at least one point in their final game (Saturday vs. the Rangers), the playoff spot is theirs. If the Panthers do not win both of their final two games (Saturday vs. the Sabres, Sunday at the Bruins), they have no chance to qualify, even if the Flyers lose in regulation. Basically, this crazy tiebreak scenario can only occur if a few things happen exactly like this:
- First, the Flyers must lose to the Rangers by exactly two goals (in regulation, obviously). This would bring their season goal differential to +1 and keep their points and ROW stuck where they are currently.
- Then, the Panthers would have to win both of their last two games. But that's not all: They would have to win both games in the shootout and in no other fashion. Shootout wins add one to the team goal differential, bringing the Panthers' GD to +1; at the same time, shootout wins count for two points in the standings but don't factor into ROW, leaving the Panthers with 96 points and 39 ROW, both the same as the Flyers.
It's unprecedented and it's extremely unlikely, but this year, a Stanley Cup Playoffs play-in game is technically possible. The league would conduct that drawing this Sunday, and the Flyers and Panthers would face off on Tuesday, April 10, before the postseason kicks off the following night.