The NHL was formed at a time when going to a game meant taking a horse-drawn carriage down Main Street to the rink, hopefully not catching typhus, and paying for the ticket with a haypenny found looting scrap on the Old Man Seamus Junkyard
The league has been around for a while, I’m trying to say. Long enough to anticipate the end of World War I, the invention of penicillin and the transistor radio.
And yet, in all its years of operation, only four teams have managed to come down from a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series and emerge victorious. Two of those four comebacks came before the NHL allowed players to make two-line passes.
The odds aren’t good. And the Edmonton Oilers are staring them in the face as they head into the all-important Game 4 against the Colorado Avalanche tonight.
Look, it would be easy to just schedule the Oilers for a loss tonight and get a kick start for their season review. Everyone does it, and for good reason. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model, for example, gives the Oilers a two percent chance of progressing through the third round as of Monday morning. I personally think that might be a little generous.
However, let’s keep Oilers fans happy in their hour of need. The chances may be high, but they are not endless. This has happened before. In the era of color television, even twice! So let’s take a look at both of those miraculous comebacks and see if the Oilers can emulate some of that magic.
2010 Philadelphia Flyer
The 2010 Flyers became the first team in 35 years to pull off hockey’s most difficult feat, recovering from the three-for-no deficit imposed on them by the Boston Bruins in their second-round streak salvaging their season and eventually winning an (ultimately unsuccessful) trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
There are surprisingly some facets of this comeback crew that should make Oilers fans happy.
For one thing, these Flyers didn’t have two of the greatest straight point earners in NHL history on their rosters. Few teams actually do that. 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 the 2009–10 regular season with fewer than 65 points and have already seen their aggregate results as the entire playoff run becomes dwarfed by the two Oilers’ superstars, though the latter duo is only three games into round three.
Another encouraging similarity is that the 2010 Flyers also featured some really underperforming goaltenders. And like the Oilers, they really have themselves to blame.
That team brought out Brian Boucher to start the series, only to turn to Michael Leighton in Game 5 to fend off a Bruins team that would soon define the early 2010 roster build. Leighton, a career minor league, had seen just 103 games of NHL action up to that point and still gave the Flyers a .916 save percentage in 13 starts.
Mike Smith, for comparison, is currently rocking a .917 percent savings on 15 starts.
Funnily enough, Boucher wasn’t replaced due to his rocking performance. Leighton only came on thanks to a Game 5 Boucher injury, forcing the Flyers to make a change they wouldn’t otherwise have and trade their struggling veteran for another, albeit less experienced, option.
Something tells me that despite Smith’s struggles, Jay Woodcroft won’t willingly relinquish the crease over Mikko Koskinen. But if Boucher stayed healthy and Leighton stayed on the bench, who knows if we’d even be talking about that team today.
What struck me most about the way the Flyers dug themselves the huge hole they sort of dug 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 defeat in regulation; Game 3, the Breakaway, a 4-1 win on home ice.
The Oilers, on the other hand, haven’t gone down in exactly the same way, giving up a whopping 16 goals in three games while scoring just eight of their own — and even getting shut out by Colorado’s backup goalie in Game 2.
The Flyers have at least kept things mostly closed in their trio of losses while the Oilers slowly let things slip away.
2014 Kings of Los Angeles
Four years later, the Los Angeles Kings would pull off their own impossible comeback against the San Jose Sharks, and do so in the first round to set the stage for their second trophy run in three years.
If you really think about it, early to mid 2010 Sharks teams are very similar to the current Avalanche; a talented group with experienced firepower that’s been making noise throughout the regular season but hasn’t come out on top in the playoffs.
Not to mention, the Sharks’ path to a 3-0 lead in the series is much more similar to the Avs’ from this year than San Jose defeated the Kings 6-3 and 7-2 in Games 1 and 2 before defeated in Game 3 seeking a 4-3 overtime win.
At least when it comes to precedent, the youngest team to brave the odds managed to get their lunch for the first three games of the series, just as the Oilers have done so far, while Kings starter Jonathan Quick might have looked even shakier out as Smith.
What happened next, however, lies at the feet of the goalkeepers.
Quick would give up just five goals in the remaining four games, including a shutout in Game 5 to lead the Kings to victory. This was the start of a second long playoff run that would make Quick a household name for a while, and the Kings clearly piggybacked on their netminder’s outstanding play to pin their high-flying opponent.
Quick was then in his prime at just 28 years old and had far less mileage on his body than Smith. It might be asking too much to ask Smith to play near-perfect hockey in the next four games.
Then there was the second rating. The Kings weren’t as top-heavy as these Oilers, clearly lacking the star power of a McDavid-Draisaitl double strike. But what they lacked in momentum, they made up for in depth.
A 21-year-old Tyler Toffoli had 14 points in that playoff run; Tanner Pearson had 12; Mike Richards had 10. Even Dwight King added 11 points to give the Kings an effective source of offense in the bottom six.
Aside from their Big Two, Zach Hyman and Evander Kane (who is suspended for Game 4), the Oilers don’t have the reinforcements Los Angeles used to salvage their season.
But at least they can say that the last team that managed to come back after 0-3 won the cup. Maybe they can too!