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NHL Playoffs vs. March Madness: How much harder is it to win a best-of-seven compared to one game?

One thing that makes the NCAA tournament so fun is that each game counts. One loss and you’re out. That means a worse team getting a couple of lucky bounces can often beat a better team having an off-night. But in a best of seven series, that’s not supposed to be as true. With more games to play, the truly better team should come out on top, right?

My question is: How much of an effect does a best-of-seven series truly have?

For instance, take the NYR-PIT series, in which Vegas odds (right now) say The Rangers have a 65% chance of winning game one and the Penguins have a 35% chance of winning. If those odds don’t change through the series, what are Pittsburgh’s odds of winning it all?

To answer this, I wrote some code in R (hockey_sim.r), and ran tens of thousands of simulated playoff series. Here’s the answer:


According to this graph, The impact of the best-of-seven compared to a single game gets bigger as the teams get further apart in ability. The New York Rangers have a 65% chance of winning any single game, but an 81% chance of winning the series. Pittsburgh is on the other end of that equation.


And as you might expect, the more games in the series, the more pronounced this effect gets.



  1. Playing multiple games in a series has a serious effect on the likelihood of winning.
  2. The further the odds are from 50%, the bigger the effect gets.
  3. The more games you play, the bigger the effect gets.
  4. The magnitude of this effect is surprisingly small. Playing up to seven times as many games only improves New York’s odds by 15%

CCUBC Science Promotion Prize!

I’m so pleased to have awarded the 2014 Science Promotion Prize by the Canadian Council of University Biology Chairs (CCUBC). I work as hard as I can to turn kids into scientists and to help build public support for science in general. It’s very gratifying to know that biologists across Canada have noticed my efforts. I’m truly moved by this. I feel very honoured.

2014-11-14 14.02.22

Congrats co-author Jorn!

Jorn Cheney is a grad student at Brown University in the lab where I once worked as a postdoc. Some work we did together has finally come out the other side of the peer review process, and is now offically accepted. Congrats, Jorn! Here’s the full citation:

Cheney, J. A., Ton, D., Konow, N., Riskin, D. K., Breuer, K. S., and Swartz, S. M. (In Press). Hindlimb motion during steady flight of the lesser dog-faced fruit bat, Cynopterus brachyotis. PLoS One. Accepted April 30, 2014.

(I’m also happy for myself, since I haven’t had a paper come out in a while.)