How Magic & Tragic Numbers Work

So, how close is your team to clinching a playoff spot? Do you know how to figure that out? If not, you’ve come to the right place. We will explain the concept of the magic number. Once the magic number hits zero, your team can celebrate making the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning are closest to the playoffs as of now. As of Mar 2, their magic number is 13.

Maybe your team is on the other end of the spectrum. You’re just counting down the time until they are eliminated from playoff contention. There’s something for you as well. This is your tragic number. If this number reaches zero, your team is toast.

How do we figure what a team’s magic and tragic number are? And which number applies to your team? Let us explain that for you now.

Steven Stamkos #91, Tampa Bay Lightning
Steven Stamkos and the Lightning are on the verge of clinching a playoff spot. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Magic Number

Let’s set this up for you. If your team is in a playoff spot and you want to know how close they are to clinching a berth, you need to figure out what their magic number is. To do that, you must find the first team outside of the playoffs that has the highest maximum possible total points.

As of this writing, that team in the Eastern Conference is the Columbus Blue Jackets. They have 69 points in 64 games as of Mar 2. First, you figure out how many points they can get if they win out. They have 18 games left, meaning they could get 36 points. That gives them a maximum point total of 105 when you add their current total with their maximum remaining total.

Now take that 105 and subtract your team’s current point total. Let’s use the Boston Bruins as an example. They have 86 points as of this update. The difference is 19 points.

Because you have to factor in ties at the end of the season, you have one more step to complete. You need to determine who owns the tiebreaker. In the above example between Boston and Columbus, Boston has three points and Columbus has two heads up. So if the teams finish tied in the standings, Boston wins this tiebreaker. Their magic number remains 19. Had Columbus had the upper hand, you add one to the magic number for Boston. It becomes 20.

What is this really saying? It says that the Bruins will make the playoffs with any combination of points they gain and points lost by the team that has the highest possible ending point total. For instance, let’s say that Boston wins their next game. With those two points, their magic number drops to 17. If they lose in overtime, the magic number drops by one to 18.

Their magic number can also drop if the team with the highest possible ending point total loses ground. At the end of that night’s game, you determine who has the highest possible ending point total and recalculate.

This can be tricky. A team can lose and the magic number sometimes doesn’t drop by two points. This happens when the next team out of the playoffs is one point behind.

Because the team we compare can change nightly, this is not easy to always compute. Just remember to determine which team has the highest possible ending point total to make your comparison and you’ve mostly got it.

Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo (1) replaces goalie James Reimer
The Florida Panthers currently own the inside track to a wildcard spot thanks to having the highest maximum point total remaining of the contenders. (Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)

Putting It Into Practice

Let’s put this in visual form. Let’s look at the Eastern Conference wildcard race between Columbus, Florida, Carolina and the New York Islanders.

  • Columbus: 69 points, 18 games left, max total: 105
  • Florida: 66 points, 21 games left, max total: 108
  • Carolina: 67 points, 18 games left, max total: 103
  • NY Islanders: 65 points, 18 games left, max total: 101

Florida has the inside track to the second wildcard for now thanks to having the highest maximum point total of this group. So let’s figure their magic number. You take the first team out of this group, which is Columbus. Then you compare the two teams.

Columbus can get to 105. Florida is at 66. That’s 39 points. Now look at the tiebreaker. In this case, because ROW can fluctuate, we don’t know how the season plays out yet. Florida leads ROW 28-26, but Columbus could conceivably catch up. So for now, add one to 39 to get the magic number of 40.

Conversely, Florida can get to 108. Columbus is at 69. The difference is 39. Add one to get the magic number of 40.

Every game Florida wins, take two points off that number. Every game the team right below them loses, re-evaluate to see which team is the first out and re-calculate.

Here’s the best way to remember this part. If the highest ending maximum is lower after that day’s games from the previous day, reduce your team’s magic number by that difference.

This might seem difficult to some of you reading this, especially if you aren’t good at math. If that’s you, here’s another way to think of these calculations. The magic number is the measure of how many points it takes before a team behind you can’t catch up to you. If your team keeps winning, it’s harder for someone to catch you. If the team chasing you loses, it’s harder for them to catch you also.

In conclusion, the magic number can be reduced in two ways. It goes down if your team gains points or if the highest possible remaining team loses points. If you have any questions about this, feel free to reach out to me via Twitter or email.

The Tragic Number

This number speaks for itself. It’s the number of combined points you can lose before your team cannot earn enough points to qualify for the playoffs. Check out this neat graphic by the NHL which shows tragic numbers in action.

Notice that only the non-playoff teams have a tragic number. It also works the opposite as the magic number. Compare the playoff team who has the lowest maximum remaining to your team. If your team loses points, your tragic number goes down accordingly. It also goes down if the lowest maximum team gains points. If your tragic number hits zero, your season is over.

Hope this helps you understand the concept of the magic and tragic number better. The later in the season it gets, the more that tie breakers could come into play. If a particular team owns a tiebreaker over you, their magic number goes down by one since your team has to finish higher than them.

Good luck to your team and hope tragedy doesn’t hit too quickly for them.