Which is the most important game of a best-of-seven series?
Logically, any elimination game is more critical (at least to one team) than a non-elimination game, and a game in which either participating squad could be sent home with the other advancing (i.e. a Game 7) is the most crucial of all. This is why NHL teams fight tooth-and-nail over an 82 game season and why moments in November can mean as much as moments in April - so that that Game 7 can be played in their house, in front of their fans.
Yet most series don't go seven games (there were just three Game 7's in last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, just seven in 45 series since the lockout and only 22 in 120 series since 2000), and some don't even make it past Game 4, so the most important game that is played in every series must be one of those first four, and it might very well be Game 2.
Why Game 2? Because once it's done, either one team finds itself in a deep 2-0 hole or the road team has gained a split (always the stated goal of squads opening a series with a pair away from home) and one team has avoided that 2-0 hole. Game 1 may get a team off to a quick start in a series and set an early tone, but Game 2 is nearly a must-win for the team that lost Game 1, even if it is the visitor.
If that sounds a little dramatic for a game so early in a potentially long series, consider that through the fall of 2007, teams that have found themselves down 2-0 in a best-of-seven series in any of the three major sports that use the format (hockey, baseball and basketball) have only come back to win that series 11.4% of the time (in 552 total series). Further, of the 439 times in the history of the three sports that the home team has held serve and taken a 2-0 lead with them on the road, they've won the series 398 times - a 90.7% win percentage; teams that have taken 2-0 series on the other guy's ice/field/court have turned them into series victories 80.5% of the time.
The numbers are slightly less dramatic when looking at the NHL only, and, not surprisingly, in earlier rounds across sports (where the disparity in talent can make a comeback a little easier for a far superior team that stumbles out of the gate), but the fact remains that Game 2 can either be an early coffin-nail in a series or new life. Case in point, a season ago the Game 2 winner went on to win 14 of 15 series.
Bringing it a little closer to home, in 25 best-of-seven playoff series in Caps franchise history, the Caps have won Game 2 ten times, and gone on to win seven of those series. In the 15 series in which they've lost Game 2, they've only won twice. In other words, the Caps have a .700 series winning percentage when winning Game 2 and a .133 series winning percentage when losing the second game of a series (including, of course, last season's first round loss to Philly).
Now, obviously every playoff game is important, and, for the most part, each subsequent game becomes more important than the last (perhaps a Game 4 at 3-0 isn't as critical overall as the Game 3 at 2-0 might have been). But, much like scoring the second goal of a game, the importance of Game 2's tend to be under-valued and under-discussed, which is a shame. Because winning Game 2 may be more important than you think... and it's a nice one to have in your own building.