The History of Reverse Stanley Cup Playoff Comebacks in the Salary Cap Era

The NHL was founded during a time when attending a game meant taking a trip down main street on your horse-drawn buggy to the rink, hopefully not catching typhoid in the process, and paying for your ticket with a hay penny you found while scavenging for junk in Old Man Seamus’ scrap yard 

The league has been around for a while, is what I’m trying to say. Long enough to pre-date the end of World War One, the invention of penicillin, and the transistor radio. 

And yet, throughout all of those years of operation, only four teams have managed to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series to emerge victorious. Two of those four comebacks came before the NHL allowed players to make two-line passes. 

The odds aren’t great. And the Edmonton Oilers are staring down the barrel of them heading into tonight’s do-or-die Game 4 versus the Colorado Avalanche. 

Look, it would be easy to just pencil the Oilers in for a loss tonight and get a jump-start on the retrospective of their season. Everyone is doing it, and for good reason. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model, for example, gives the Oilers a two percent chance to make it out of the third round as of Monday morning. Personally, I think that might be a little generous. 

Let’s humor Oilers fans in their hour of need, though. The odds may be long, but they’re not endless. This has happened before. Twice during the era of color television, in fact! So, let’s take a look at those two miraculous comebacks and see if the Oilers can replicate some of that magic. 

2010 Philadelphia Flyers 

The 2010 Flyers became the first team in 35 years to pull off hockey’s most difficult feat, surging back from the three-games-to-none deficit imparted upon them by the Boston Bruins in their second-round series to save their season and eventually earn an (ultimately unsuccessful) trip to the Stanley Cup Final. 

There are surprisingly a few facets of this comeback crew that should make Oilers fans happy. 

For one, these Flyers did not have two of the greatest pure point-getters in NHL history on their roster. Few teams do, really. Still, Philly’s version of Connor McDavid and Leon Draitsaitl was 32-year-old Daniel Briere and 24-year-old Mike Richards, both of whom finished with under 65 points during the 2009-10 regular season and have already seen their totals from that entire playoff run be eclipsed by both Oilers’ superstars despite the latter duo being just three games into round three. 

Another encouraging similarity is that the 2010 Flyers also dealt with some truly subpar goaltending. And, like the Oilers, it’s their own fault, really. 

This team trotted out Brian Boucher to start the series, only to turn to backup Michael Leighton in Game 5 to fend off a Bruins team that would soon define early-2010’s roster building. Leighton, a career minor-leaguer, had seen just 103 games of NHL action to that point and still gave the Flyers a .916 save percentage in 13 starts. 

Mike Smith, for comparison, currently rocks a .917 save percentage through 15 starts. 

Funnily enough, Boucher wasn’t replaced due to his rocky performance. Leighton only came in thanks only to a Boucher injury in Game 5, thereby forcing the Flyers to make a change they otherwise wouldn’t have and swap out their struggling veteran in favor of a different, albeit less experienced, option. 

Something tells me Jay Woodcroft isn’t going to willingly hand the crease over the Mikko Koskinen despite Smith’s struggles. But if Boucher stayed healthy and kept Leighton on the bench, who knows if we’d even be talking about this team today.  

What stood out to me most about the way in which the Flyers dug themselves the massive hole they would somehow dig out of is that two of their three opening games ended remarkably close. Game 1 was a 5-4 loss in overtime; Game 2 a 3-2 loss in regulation; Game 3, the outlier, a 4-1 drubbing on home ice. 

The Oilers, on the other hand, have not exactly gone down swinging in the same manner, surrendering a whopping 16 goals in three games while scoring only eight of their own — even getting shut out by Colorado’s backup goaltender in Game 2. 

The Flyers at least kept things close for the most part in their trio of losses, while the Oilers have slowly let things slip away. 

2014 Los Angeles Kings 

Four years later, the Los Angeles Kings would pull off their own impossible comeback against the San Jose Sharks, doing so in the first round to set the stage for their second Cup run in three years. 

When you really think about it, those early-to-mid-2010’s Sharks teams are a lot like the current Avalanche; a talented group with veteran firepower that consistently makes noise in the regular season but has failed to get over the hump in the playoffs. 

Not to mention, the Sharks’ pathway to a 3-0 series lead is far more similar to the Avs’ from this year, with San Jose curb-stomping the Kings 6-3 and 7-2 in Games 1 and 2 respectively, before eeking out a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 3. 

So, at least when it comes to precedent, the most recent team to defy the odds managed to overcome getting their lunch handed to them for the first three games of the series, just as the Oilers have thus far, while Kings’ starter Jonathan Quick looking perhaps even shakier than Smith. 

What happened next, though, lies at the feet of goaltending. 

Quick would proceed to surrender just five goals in the remaining four games, including a Game 5 shutout, to lift the Kings to victory. This was the beginning of a second lengthy playoff run that would make Quick a household name for a time, and the Kings clearly piggybacked off of their netminder’s stellar play to lock down their high-flying opponent. 

Quick was still in his prime at the time, at just 28 years old, and had far fewer miles on his body than Smith does. It might be too much to ask of Smith to play nearly perfect hockey for the next four games. 

Then there was the secondary scoring. The Kings were not as top-heavy as these Oilers, clearly lacking the star power of a McDavid and Draisaitl one-two punch. But what they lacked in pizzazz, they made up for it in depth. 

A 21-year-old Tyler Toffoli had 14 points on that playoff run; Tanner Pearson had 12; Mike Richards had 10. Even Dwight King, of all people, chipped in 11 points to give the Kings an effective source of offense in the bottom six. 

Outside of their Big Two,  Zach Hyman, and Evander Kane (who is suspended for Game 4), the Oilers don’t have the reinforcements that Los Angeles used to save their season. 

But, at the very least, they can say that the last team that managed to come back from being down 3-0 went on to win the Cup. Maybe they can, too!

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