Caps’ Playoff Run Exposes Tiebreaker Rule

Any casual Washington Capitals fan knows that the Caps seven game winning streak has put them in pretty good position to win the Southeast Division—they have a four point lead over the Winnipeg Jets with only six games to play.

But even diehard Caps fans probably don’t realize that if the Caps and Jets finish tied in the standings at the end of the year, a bizarre tiebreaker rule could come into play that would cause everyone affiliated with NHL hockey—officials and fans alike—to scratch their heads in confusion.

If two NHL teams finish tied in points at the end of the regular season, the NHL tiebreaker procedures break down like this:

The first tiebreaker is fewer number of games played (i.e., superior points percentage). This would only come into play if the teams haven’t played the same number of games (not the case here) and so barring an unusual circumstance it will never be used at the end of a season.

The second tiebreaker is greater number of games won (excluding shootout wins). Currently the Caps and Jets are tied in this category with twenty wins each in either regulation or the overtime period. As a practical matter it is probably more likely that the Jets would finish ahead in this category in the event of a tie in points for the simple reason that the Jets would need to gain four more points than the Caps over the final six games for the teams to end tied in the standings. But it is certainly possible that this tiebreaker won’t decide the matter. For example, if the Jets finish the season 4-2-0 with two shootout wins and the Caps finish 2-4-0, the two teams would finish tied in points and each would have 22 wins in regulation or overtime.

The third tiebreaker is greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs, and this is where things get strange. A quick glance at the Caps schedule reveals that the Caps have a 3-1-0 record against the Jets to date with only one game remaining. Certainly the Caps should have this tiebreaker mathematically wrapped up right? Even if the Jets win their final matchup the Caps will have earned six points in their head-to-head matchups (or seven if the game goes beyond regulation) versus four for the Jets. Not so fast though—a closer look at the third tiebreaker rules reveals that if the Jets win the last matchup in regulation the teams would actually still remain tied after this tiebreaker. How is that possible? Because according to the rule 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. The purpose behind the rule seems reasonable—to negate any advantage one of the teams gets for playing more home games. But watch how it plays out in this hypothetical tiebreaker between the Caps and Jets:

These are the results of the games between the two teams this year:

January 22—Jets (4) at Capitals (2)
March 2—Caps (3) at Jets (0)
March 21—Caps (4) at Jets (0)
March 22—Caps (6) at Jets (1)
April 23—Jets at Caps (assume a Jets victory in regulation)

The two teams will have played three games in Winnipeg and only two in Washington, an unbalanced schedule that is the result of the lockout and resulting compressed schedule. In order to negate the advantage given to Winnipeg for having an extra home game, the third tiebreaker requires the first Winnipeg home game to be excluded for purposes of calculating the head-to head point total. But the problem is that the first Winnipeg home game was a 3-0 Caps victory!! When this game is removed the Caps will no longer have a higher point total in games between the squads and they will instead be tied with four points each. This is obviously the wrong result. I will address how this should be fixed in a moment but first let’s go to the final tiebreaker to find out who is going to win the division—the suspense is killing me!

The fourth tiebreaker is goal differential, with a shootout win counting as an extra goal for, and a shootout loss counting as an extra goal against. The Caps have a plus-14 differential and the Jets are minus-11, meaning the Jets would need to outscore the Caps by at least twenty-five goals the rest of the way to win this tiebreaker. Barring a historic ending to this NHL season the Caps seem to have this one in hand. So if we end up making it to this point in the tiebreaker scenario the Caps will win the division.

But let’s go back to the third tiebreaker for a moment. Certainly it is an unusual fact pattern that would result in a team getting penalized by this rule as the Caps would—the regular season schedule is currently structured so that each team plays the same number of home and away games against each conference opponent. In fact, for this rule to come into play in a playoff tiebreaker the league would probably have to be facing a shortened season as a result of labor strife or some other unexpected event. But nonetheless this broken rule has an easy fix—a game should only get eliminated from the calculation in the third tiebreaker if it would benefit the road team. If this were the rule then the Caps 3-0 victory would stand and the Caps wouldn’t need to sweat out a point differential showdown.

And why does the rule as currently written implicate the first home game and not the others instead? It seems completely arbitrary and makes no sense at all. In fact, if the Caps had lost their first game at Winnipeg and had instead won their home game on January 22, they would have prevailed in the third tiebreaker because it would have been a Caps loss that would have been removed from the point total. In my opinion, the rule should be rewritten to state that to the extent one team plays more home games in a head-to-head matchup, home games should be removed that benefit such home team regardless of when they are played, starting with the games that benefit the home team the most. In other words, games won by the home team in regulation are removed first and then games in overtime or won in a shootout.

Let’s hope the Caps finish the season strong so we don’t need to think about this nonsense. But if the Caps lose to Toronto by 25 goals on Tuesday night we might have a problem on our hands.

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