Until a team's backs are really up against the wall, there is no such thing as a must-win game. You hear it often from players, coaches and analysts alike but until a team has three losses in a playoff series, it's obvious hyperbole.
But every exaggeration bears some shred of truth behind it.
If there were such a thing as a meaningless or throw-away playoff game, the best to qualify would be Game 1. It can occasionally be a feel-out game and losing it is not the end of the world, there is time to recover.
Teams that win Game 1, win the series 68.7% of the time.— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) April 17, 2014
Overwhelming percentage? No. But perhaps it's a little stronger correlation than you might think to the first game. Now the number does make a lot of sense when you consider home teams win the majority of games so they have that leg up already in Game 1. Plus, they are the higher seed and thus, in theory, the better team. Still, it's a meaningful correlation.
There is a tendency to put more emphasis on the games later when the stakes at hand are more apparent. But just the same as a win in October counts for two points, the same as a win in March, a win in Game 1 is equal to a win in Game 7; you need four of them no matter when they come.
In a way this all leads us to tonight's Game 1 between the Flyers and Rangers. In a recent radio interview I was asked how important is it that Steve Mason will miss the first game of the series and possibly Game 2. If the Flyers lose with Ray Emery, they still have plenty of time to recover, right?
Obviously the answer is yes. There's still an almost 1-in-3 chance to come back from a Game 1 loss and in the Flyers' case, they have a better success rate. It's not the end of the world.
The goal for road teams, the realistic goal, is just to earn a split in the first two games and take the home-ice advantage back with them. Being put into a situation where you are forced to play a backup -- even with plenty of experience -- who has a .903 save percentage this season, puts you in a dangerous spot that is proven to be difficult to come out of, even if it's just one game.
A loss in Game 1 puts a lot of pressure on Game 2 because as tough as the 0-1 deficit is, it obviously only gets tougher down 2-0. The success rate then for teams down is 12.7 percent. Still not a death sentence on your season but that's tough sledding. The last time a comeback from down 2-0 happened, even in this era of "competitive balance," was 2010 when the Flyers climbed out of their 3-0 deficit to the Bruins.
Again, nobody in their right mind would suggest losing a playoff game is OK but also rationalizing away a loss in Game 1 as just one game isn't as easy as it might seem.
It's not the be-all, end-all if you lose a Game 1 and indeed it is very possible to come back from that hole, but history shows it's a pretty good harbinger of things to come.