By Rob Ficiur
Unlikely (impossible) playoff comebacks is why fans follow sports. Even though it can be done, usually comebacks fall short. This year the Los Angeles Kings became just the fourth team in NHL history to win a playoff series after trailing three games to zero.
In NHL playoff history, a team has been down three games to zero 178 times. The four teams that made the comeback represent 2.2% of the trailing teams. Mathematically the chances of winning four consecutive games are ? x ? x ? x ? = 6.25%. The success rate of the “Impossible Comeback” is about one third of what the math tells us it should be. There are at least three simple explanations why so few teams make this comeback. First, the team that is ahead 3-0 is probably a better team. Second, after falling behind three games in a row the losing team has lost confidence and momentum. While they will say all the right things, in their mind they know the chances of winning are slim. Third, every great comeback takes some luck; a bounce here or there and a game is lost. Who were the four teams that made these comebacks? What had they done in the past? What did they do years later?
1 – Toronto Maple Leafs 1942 – were the first team in North American pro-sports to complete the Impossible Comeback. The Leafs finished second in the seven team NHL, three points behind the first place New York Rangers. Teams three through six played each other in the next two rounds of the playoffs. From these four teams, the two winners played off in round 2, with that winner going to the Stanley Cup final. The top seated Rangers and Leafs played each other in round 1, the winning team going to the Stanley Cup championship.
The 1942 Stanley Cup victory was Toronto’s first championship since 1931. However, the Maple Leafs won five of the next ten Stanley Cups after their 1942 comeback.
2 – New York Islanders 1975 – It took thirty three years for another team to make the Impossible Comeback. In 1975 the New York Islanders (88 points) were evenly matched with the Pittsburgh Penguins (89 points). The Islanders were in the third year of their existence and this was their first ever playoff year. The Penguins were another mediocre expansion team.
The 1975 New York Islanders had some young players who would become household names in the next decade. Leading that comeback team were Dennis Potvin (20), Clark Gilles (20), Bob Nystrom (22) and Billy Smith age 24. These four players were part of the Islanders teams that four Stanley Cups in a row starting in 1980.
The amazing 1975 New York Islanders almost repeated the feat in the next round. Fresh off of their comeback against Pittsburgh, New York played the defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers. After losing the first three games with the Flyers, the Islanders won three in a row. Their run for two Impossible Comebacks in a row felt short in game #7 against the eventual Stanley Cup wining Flyers.
3 – Philadelphia Flyers 2010 – Thirty five years later it was the Flyers who did the nearly impossible. The Flyers (88 points) and the Boston Bruins (91 points.) met in the second round. Down three games to zero, the Flyers won Game 4 in overtime to prolong the series.
Unlike the 1942 Leafs and the 1975 Islanders these Flyers have not built on their Impossible comeback. In 2011 and 2012 the Flyers were eliminated in the second and missed the playoffs in 2013.
4 – LA Kings 2014 – After the 2011 Flyers were eliminated in the second round management made some changes. They traded Captain Mike Richards top scoring winger Jeff Carter to Columbus. By the end of the 2012 playoffs Richards and Carter were together again leading LA to a Stanley Cup championship.
When the 2014 Kings fell 3-0 down to the San Jose Sharks in Round 1, the former Flyers were barraged with questions. Mike Richards got the bulk of the questions. When the Kings came back and defeated the San Jose Sharks Mike Richards became the first player in NHL history to play on two teams that made the “Impossible Comeback.” When asked to explain why he was able to do it – twice – Richards replied “Maybe I am a loser who falls behind too often.”
The Kings comeback this year is different than the other four Impossible Comebacks. Fourteen members of the 2014 Kings had won a championship with the team two years earlier. As a championship team, they learned how to win when they should not. Experience, not youthful potential won the series for this year’s Kings.
Impossible Comebacks are even less common in baseball and basketball – more on them in a future column.