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January 24, 2020
3-0 Playoff Series
by Michael Paul Dell, Editor-in-Chief
Including the 2012 postseason, only eight of 172 teams have even reached a Game Seven after falling behind 0-3 in a playoff series. And of those eight resilient squads, only three achieved ultimate victory.
The 1942 Maple Leafs were the first to turn the trick, storming back to stun the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals behind the great Syl Apps. The Leafs staved off elimination with a 4-3 Game Four victory in Detroit and then blitzed the Wings 9-3 back in Toronto. Turk Broda, who allowed just seven goals over the final four contests, pitched a 3-0 shutout in Game Six, setting the stage for Sweeney Schriner to score two goals in the 3-1 Game Seven triumph.
Detroit almost pulled the ol' switcheroo on Toronto in the 1945 Cup Finals. The Wings dropped the opening three contests by a combined score of 4-0 before rattling off three straight wins. But the Leafs took Game Seven 2-1 in Detroit, avoiding humiliation thanks to Babe Pratt snapping a 1-1 tie with less than eight minutes to go in regulation.
The 1975 New York Islanders became the second team to win a series after falling behind 0-3, victimizing the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0 in Game Seven at the Igloo on an Ed Westfall goal. The Isles enjoyed the drama so such, they went out and promptly lost the first three games of the next round to the Philadelphia Flyers. And, once again, the Isles responded with three straight wins. But this time the comeback fell short, with the Flyers taking Game Seven 4-1 on home ice.
In 2010, the Flyers became the third and final team to climb out of an 0-3 hole, dispatching the Boston Bruins 4-3 in Game Seven. Not only did they blow the 3-0 series lead, the Bruins also had a 3-0 first-period advantage in Game Seven before surrendering four unanswered tallies. Simon Gagne buried the eventual winner for Philly on the power play at 12:52 of the third.
And that's it.
Three teams out of 172. The 1.7-percent success rate is worse than Gary Bettman’s Q Rating. So where's the room for optimism?
Well, that 3-for-172 stat is terribly misleading. I mean, if you're falling behind 0-3, chances are you probably suck and should have lost the series anyway.
Of the 172 series that have opened 0-3, three involved teams with identical points, while only 36 featured the club with the higher point total falling behind. Somewhat surprisingly, the '42 Leafs are the only higher-seeded team to ever complete the comeback, giving the favored clubs a 2.8-percent success rate.
The lower-seeded team has fallen behind 133 times, managing to prevail on two occasions. But should we really be surprised the favored team closes out a 3-0 series lead 98.5 percent of the time?
The NHL's flawed competitive balance during the post-expansion eras of the 1970s and 1980s further skews the data. Overall, in the 133 series in which the lower-seeded team fell behind 0-3, an average of 17.5 points separated the two clubs. Again, how often should we expect a team 20 points back in the standings to win four straight games?
But that point disparity has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years. In the 1970s, the team that went up 3-0 was, on average, 26 points better than its opponent. The higher-seeded team up 3-0 in the 1980s enjoyed a 21.7-point advantage in the standings. The edge dwindled to 14.9 points in the 1990s and 12.1 points in the first decade of the 2000s. In the first three years of the 2010s, the favored team was only 8.2 points better than its 0-3 underdog. The smaller that gap gets between the two teams, the more likely we are to see a successful 0-3 comeback.
The 1975 Islanders were only one point worse than the Penguins. Only three points separated the 2010 Flyers and Bruins.
Prior to 2010, a total of 159 teams had opened 0-3, with only five managing to see a Game Seven. So losing the first three meant there was a 3.14-percent chance the series would go the distance.
Since 2010, we've already witnessed three of 13 teams fall behind 0-3 and force a Game Seven, with the 2011 Red Wings and Blackhawks joining the 2010 Flyers. That means in today's NHL, you've got a 23.1-percent chance of seeing something special whenever a series goes 3-0.
The salary cap and continued improvements in coaching, training, and equipment have leveled the playing field and made the difference between winning and losing razor thin. A lot has been made of the 2012 Los Angeles Kings being an eighth seed, but the Royalty were two points from being the three seed and just 14 points from the President's Trophy. In 1982, the Kings were the 15th-seeded playoff team, making the postseason with a mere 63 points. That was 55 points back of the league-leading Islanders.
During the 1980s, an average of 50.1 points separated the NHL’s top team and the 16th playoff team. In the 1990s, that gap reduced to 34.6 points. So far in the 2000s, that same point disparity has been 26.3 points. The league is getting tighter and tighter each year, only increasing the odds of an 0-3 rally.
Not only is the point disparity between playoff opponents dwindling, the NHL's improved competitive balance has also created a dramatic increase in the number of higher-seeded teams falling behind 0-3. The 2012 Kings were truly remarkable, becoming the first team in NHL history to grab four 3-0 playoff leads in the same postseason. Even more impressive, the Kings were the lower-seeded team in each series.
Prior to 1980, the NHL had witnessed 62 playoff series go 3-0, and the higher-seeded team fell behind on only five occasions. Not a single higher-seeded team went 0-3 in the entire decade of the 1960s. Compare that to the 1980s, which saw six higher-seeded teams fall behind 0-3 out of a possible 27 series. The 1990s continued the trend, with seven higher-seeded teams going 0-3 out of 29 series. In the first 10 years of the 2000s, the higher-seeded club fell behind in 10 of 33 series. Since 2010, we’ve had 13 3-0 series, and eight of them featured the higher-seeded team dropping the first three games.
Seeing the higher-seeded team fall behind 0-3 is no longer a rare occurrence. And it’s only a matter of time before one of those “better” clubs rises up and runs the table.
In the modern NHL, not much separates good from great. A bounce here or there can make all the difference and render a daunting deficit little more than a nuisance. Within the next couple years, players will realize an 0-3 series is no longer a death sentence but an opportunity.
Seize the day.
Total 3-0 Series: 172 Lower-Seeded Team Down 3-0: 133 Higher-Seeded Team Down 3-0: 36 Same Point Totals: 3 108 ended 4-0 46 ended 4-1 10 ended 4-2 5 ended 4-3 3 ended 3-4 3-0 SERIES BY DECADE 1910s - 1 1920s - 0 1930s - 1 1940s - 11 1950s - 8 1960s - 13 1970s - 29 1980s - 27 1990s - 36 2000s - 33 2010s - 13 (through 2012) Total - 172 3-0 POINT DISPARITIES BY DECADE – HIGHER-SEEDED TEAM DOWN 3-0 Decade Series Pts Avg 1910s - - - 1920s - - - 1930s - - - 1940s 3 48 16.0 1950s 1 10 10.0 1960s - - - 1970s 1 6 6.0 1980s 6 58 9.7 1990s 7 103 14.7 2000s 10 96 9.6 2010s 8 52 6.5 (through 2012) Total 36 3 10.4 3-0 POINT DISPARITIES BY DECADE – LOWER-SWEEDED TEAM DOWN 3-0 Decade Series Pts Avg 1910s 1 4 4.0 1920s - - - 1930s 1 16 16.0 1940s 8 95 11.9 1950s 7 123 17.6 1960s 13 202 15.5 1970s 27 703 26.0 1980s 21 456 21.7 1990s 28 418 14.9 2000s 22 266 12.1 2010s 5 41 8.2 (through 2012) Total 133 2324 17.5 3-0 SERIES BY TEAM Team Up 3-0 - Down 3-0 Anaheim 4-3 Boston 18-15 Buffalo 5-8 Calgary 1-3 Carolina 1-2 Chicago 10-15 Colorado 4-3 Columbus 0-1 Dallas 3-4 Detroit 17-12 Edmonton 9-3 Florida 1-2 Los Angeles 4-7 Minnesota 0-2 Montreal 31-11 Nashville 0-0 New Jersey 6-3 NY Islanders 10-5 NY Rangers 5-10 Ottawa 1-5 Philadelphia 11-7 Phoenix 0-3 Pittsburgh 10-5 San Jose 3-3 St. Louis 6-9 Tampa Bay 2-0 Toronto 7-11 Vancouver 2-4 Washington 0-5 Winnipeg 0-2 Defunct Franchises Atlanta Flames 0-1 Atlanta Thrashers 0-1 Hartford Whalers 0-2 Minnesota North Stars 1-3 Oakland Golden Seals 0-1 Quebec Nordiques 0-1