After winning a pair of overtime thrillers to open the Stanley Cup Final, the Los Angeles Kings blitzed the New York Rangers 3-0 Monday night in Game 3, giving Los Angeles a commanding three-games-to-nil lead in the NHL’s championship series. Needless to say, things are looking quite dire for the Rangers’ faithful. But are their prospects hopeless?
When any North American professional sports team leads a best-of-seven playoff series 3-0, it tends to win the series. Of the 320 teams that found themselves in that scenario in MLB, the NBA and the NHL, 315 (or 98.4 percent) went on to win, and 204 (65 percent) closed out the series in the next game.
But the odds of a comeback are slightly better in hockey than in other sports.
Four of the five all-time comebacks from a 3-0 deficit have happened in the NHL: the Toronto Maple Leafs over the Detroit Red Wings in 1942 (in the Stanley Cup Final, no less); the New York Islanders over the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1975; the Philadelphia Flyers over the Boston Bruins in 2010; and these very LA Kings when they beat the San Jose Sharks in April. It’s likely in the nature of hockey, possibly the least deterministic sport out of North America’s “Big Four,” to produce more 3-0 comebacks simply because the outcome of any given game — whether in building the 3-0 lead or in erasing it — is fueled by a lot of luck in addition to skill.
Now, four wins in 177 tries still implies just a 2.3 percent chance of a comeback. But there is also selection bias at work, in terms of the types of matchups that tend to go to 3-0. According to Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), a team power rating that adjusts goals-per-game differential for strength of schedule, the average expansion-era (1968-present) playoff series featuring a 3-0 lead/deficit came between teams 0.45 goals per game apart. But in the regular season, the Rangers trailed the Kings by just 0.14 goals per game of SRS, meaning they’re less representative of the typical team to go down 3-0 in a series.
Furthermore, the way Games 1-3 played out might give New York hope. The Rangers lost each of the series’ first two games by a goal apiece in overtime; even after losing 3-0 in Game 3, their cumulative goals-per-game differential in the series is just -1.7. Since 1968, the average series in which one team led 3-0 saw the leading team outscore the opponent by 2.4 goals per game in Games 1-3, with only 18.1 percent of those games going into overtime. Again, this is an area where New York isn’t like the typical team that finds itself down 3-0.
Those considerations boost the Rangers’ chances somewhat – but probably not by enough. Even if we thought both New York and Los Angeles were perfectly even in talent — a charitable assumption, with the only difference between the teams being home-ice advantage (typically, home NHL teams win about 55 percent of the time) — the Rangers would only have a 6.1 percent chance of winning four games before the Kings won one.
That’s better than the 1.6 percent showing by all teams trailing 3-0 across all sports. But the Rangers still have a lot of work to do if they want to recapture the spirit of ’94.