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Significance of a 2-0 series lead in the NHL Conference Quarterfinals

Momentum is a hot commodity in the NHL playoffs. If you can grab it, you better hold on to it. And that’s what the Montreal Canadiens did on Friday night with a 3-2 overtime victory at the Bell Centre over the Ottawa Senators. Last year, Montreal not only left Tampa with a 2-0 series lead in their Eastern Quarterfinal, but they left the Sunshine State with the momentum needed to cruise to a series sweep and their eventual run deep into the Conference Finals. 

Montreal’s 4-0 series sweep over the Lightning was not typical for the 2014 NHL playoffs. Five teams jumped out to quick 2-0 series leads, but the momentum soon dissipated for all but the Canadiens. The Stars would even their series with the Ducks by winning the next two in Dallas. At least Anaheim would still move on to the next round. The other three teams were not so lucky. St. Louis fell to Chicago after four consecutive losses. Colorado and Minnesota exchanged home wins until the visiting Wild broke the pattern in overtime of Game 7. And then there was the San Jose Sharks. After dominating the Kings in Games 1 and 2, and edging Los Angeles in Game 3, the sad Sharks became only the fourth NHL team to drop a playoff series after leading 3-0. 

Was 2014 an aberration? Could it be that a commanding 2-0 series lead is merely mythical? What can the NHL’s past playoff history tell us? Since 1994, 80 teams have captured a 2-0 advantage in the Conference Quarterfinals. To assess the significance of the advantage, I analyzed how each of the 80 teams fared from that point on in their march towards the Stanley Cup. The first chart below shows the success for each team – those that failed to win their series after a 2-0 lead and, for those who were victorious, I have separated the results in to the number of games it took to close the deal.


The red slice of pie represents those teams who let their 2-0 lead slip away. Consequently, 81% of teams moved forward to the Conference Semis with the majority of series decided by Game 6. I also separated these results into teams who took their 2-0 lead at home and those who did so as road underdogs. I would have thought that those teams heading home with a 2-0 lead would have had more success finishing off the series, but it turns out to be the opposite. Only 13% of teams who had a 2-0 series lead at home would eventually lose their best of seven. The better teams tend to bounce back from early series deficits more often than the higher seeds do. 

These results are representative for the entire NHL, but less so for the Montreal Canadiens. Over the past 20 playoffs, Montreal has emerged with a 2-0 lead on five occasions in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The faithful fans of the bleu, blanc et rouge passionately recall last year’s triumph over Tampa Bay and a successful 2008 battle with Boston but cannot shake the losses to the New York Rangers (1996), Carolina (2006) and Boston (2011). But they would be happy to know the Senators have failed to come back from all four of their team’s 2-0 Conference Quarterfinal holes. In fact, Ottawa dropped three of those series in four straight. 

But can jumping out to an early lead in the opening round of the NHL playoffs have a more lasting impact? Can momentum, confidence and rest in April pay dividends in June? The following chart examines how deep into the playoffs teams can go after holding a 2-0 advantage in the Conference Quarters.


As indicated in the previous pie chart, 81% (or 65 of 80) of teams with 2-0 Conference Quarterfinal leads go on to win the first round. But the success doesn’t stop there. Nearly half of those teams are still around come the Conference Finals. And it continues. Since 1994, 22 of 40 (55%) Stanley Cup finalists held 2-0 leads all the way back in the Conference Quarters. Remarkably, this ratio holds true for those hoisting Lord Stanley’s Mug too. The following 11 Stanley Cup champions all got off to the best possible two-game playoff start:

NHL   – Stanley Cup Champions Teams with 2-0 Series Lead in Conference   Quarterfinals Since 1994
Season Team Stanley Cup Opponent Conference QF Opponent (Result)
2013 Chicago Boston Minnesota (4-1)
2012 Los Angeles New Jersey Vancouver (4-1)
2009 Pittsburgh Detroit Philadelphia (4-2)
2008 Detroit Pittsburgh Nashville (4-2)
2007 Anaheim Ottawa Minnesota (4-1)
2003 New Jersey Anaheim Boston (4-1)
2001 Colorado New Jersey Vancouver (4-0)
2000 New Jersey Dallas Florida (4-0)
1999 Dallas Buffalo Edmonton (4-0)
1995 New Jersey Detroit Boston (4-1)
1994 N.Y. Rangers Vancouver N.Y. Islanders (4-1)

The first two playoff games are only a stepping stone on the path toward the ultimate goal. And the Montreal Canadiens still need 14 more victories before reaching it. But that’s two fewer than Ottawa and that is the only number that matters at this point.

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.


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