As far as history goes, there has never been a Stanley Cup final quite like the one the NHL is about to experience. Reason being, of course, that no expansion team since the NHL’s very first round of expansion has been able to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup final.
At the very root of things, though, Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final will be much like that of any other series that has come before. Two teams, the best in their respective conferences and divisions, will square off against one another with the sport’s greatest prize on the line. So, while history can’t tell us much about how an expansion team such as the Vegas Golden Knights will fare after earning its way to the Stanley Cup final or if a longstanding underachiever such as the Washington Capitals will be able to continue to shake its own playoff demons, it can tell us a little bit about what a victory in Game 1 can mean for the remainder of the series and what me might be able to expect when the two teams meet Monday night.
As one might expect, historically speaking, the Golden Knights will enter Game 1 with a slight edge given they’ll be hitting the ice at home. Since 1939, when the Stanley Cup final shifted to a best-of-seven format, the home team has won Game 1 in 56 of the 78 series, good for a 71.8-percent winning percentage. And it turns out that a Game 1 victory for the home team has often led to a Stanley Cup victory for the club with home-ice advantage, as well. Of those 56 home teams to win Game 1, 48 have then gone on to win the Stanley Cup. That means a home team that emerges victorious from Game 1 has won the Stanley Cup 84.2 percent of the time.
And while that may seem to be somewhat of a no-duh statistic, consider that the rate of road Game 1 winners who then go on to win the Stanley Cup is considerably lower. While 22 road teams have come into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final and silenced a raucous home crowd, only 13 of those teams have been able to carry that momentum through to the rest of the series, good for a 61.9-percent Stanley Cup final success rate. The good news for the Capitals should they manage to down the Golden Knights in Game 1, though, is that the past two road teams to steal a game to kick off the final — the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks and 2012 Los Angeles Kings — have gone on to win the Cup.
And one thing the Capitals may be able to take advantage of is the historical tendency for first-time Cup contenders to have some early series jitters. While true that only one player from each team has a Stanley Cup ring — Washington’s Brooks Orpik was on the same 2009 Penguins team that won a Stanley Cup with Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes — the trend in the seven-game era has been that the franchise making its first Stanley Cup final appearance has lost Game 1. Overall, franchises making their first appearance hold a 10-16 record since 1939. Washington faithful will recall their own franchise’s struggles in their first final appearance, too. In 1998, the Capitals lost Game 1 and were rolled in four straight by the Detroit Red Wings.
Don’t take that to mean Washington is going to come out and embarrass Vegas in Game 1, however. Matter of fact, don’t enter Game 1 expecting the contest to be all that embarrassing for either side because blowouts have been extremely rare to open the Stanley Cup final. The biggest blowout in Game 1 history is the Montreal Canadiens’ 6-0 defeat of the Toronto Maple Leafs to kick off the 1947 final, and the last time the Stanley Cup final opened with a spread of more than two goals was 10 years ago when the Red Wings defeated the Penguins 4-0 en route to a Stanley Cup victory.
One shouldn’t expect the game to be all that high-scoring, though, despite the fact the two sides are fairly unfamiliar with one another. Truth be told, for every back-and-forth, last-shot-wins affair like the 6-5 contest that opened the 2010 Stanley Cup final between the Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers — and that game, as well as three others, holds the record for highest-scoring Game 1 in a final — there’s another low-scoring affair that drags the average goal total down. Thus, since the 1939 final, the average goals per game in Game 1 is 5.64, with the home side averaging 3.36 goals to the road team’s 2.28 goals. And while that would suggest the average margin of victory is only a hair more than one goal, most of the Game 1s in the best-of-seven era have ended in regulation.
In fact, the opening game of the final series of the season has only headed to extra time on 15 occasions. And in those instances when overtime is needed to find a winner for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, it just so happens that those goals tend to come in the first extra frame. Case in point: only two Game 1s since the shift to a seven-game series, the 1990 final between the Edmonton Oilers and Boston Bruins and the 2013 final which featured the Bruins and Blackhawks, have gone to multiple overtimes. Coincidentally, both were triple-overtime outings and both were won after 50-plus minutes of extra time. The average game-winner in a single overtime Game 1, however, is about nine-and-a-half minutes. On three occasions, the overtime winner has been scored within the first two minutes, and the latest single-overtime winner was an absolute buzzer-beater, coming when Mike Bossy scored with two ticks remaining in the first overtime of Game 1 in the 1982 Stanley Cup final.
Of course, the beauty of it all is that history only matters until the moment the puck is dropped and Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup final begins. And no matter what the past indicates, the Golden Knights and Capitals will be who ultimately decide their own future.
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