It won’t come as a complete surprise if and when the New York Islanders dispose of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. But it will be a bit of a shock to most pre-playoff predictors if they can manage to complete the task in four straight games.
You can insert all sorts of cliches about the Penguins at this point such as it’s do or die, their backs are against the wall and the Islanders have a stranglehold on the series. That much is true and it’s highly doubtful Pittsburgh is going to be able to reel off four consecutive victories to advance to the next round.
The Penguins chances of a Herculean comeback are approximately one in 47.5. In fact, just four NHL teams have managed to achieve the feat after losing the first three games of a best-of-seven playoff series. Up to now, there have been 190 instances of a team trailing 3-0 and the success rate of coming all the way back is a measly 2.1 per cent.
The first team to make history was the 1941/42 Toronto Maple Leafs as they quickly fell behind 3-0 to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. They then pulled a rabbit out of a hat and went on to hoist the silverware.
The next comeback should be of great interest to Islanders and Penguins fans since it involved their two teams in the 1974/75 campaign. Pittsburgh seemingly had their quarterfinal series in the bag, especially since it was the first franchise playoff appearance for the Islanders, but they somehow managed to blow it.
Therefore, if anybody out there realizes this series could be far from over it should be Islanders and Penguins fans.
The next club to pull off the minor miracle was the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009/10 when they came storming back after dropping the first three contests to the Boston Bruins during the Eastern Conference Final. And in relative quick succession, the Los Angeles Kings followed the same suit against the San Jose Sharks as recently as 2013/14 in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Continuing the history lesson, we see that 117 of the 190 teams to hold a 3-0 lead managed to wrap things up in four straight. Of the 73 squads to stay alive in game four, just nine of them were able to extend their series to the full seven games with four of them hitting the jackpot. This means there’s a 97.9 chance of the Penguins losing the series and a 61.9 per cent of them waving goodbye in game four.
If Pittsburgh does manage to survive and make it all the way to game seven their chances greatly improve since 44 per cent of the teams to push the series to the limit were successful in winning it. In the nine previous cases of a team forcing game seven after trailing 3-0, six of the deciding games were decided by a lone goal and five of them were won by the home team. In addition, two of them went to overtime.
The teams that held 3-0 leads and didn’t choke in game seven were the 1938/39 Bruins, the 1944/45 Leafs, the 1974/75 Philadelphia Flyers, the 2010/11 Sharks and the 2010/11 Vancouver Canucks.
What Islanders and Penguins fans take out of the facts depends on if they’re optimists, pessimists or realists. Anything’s possible no matter how slim the chances are.
Looking at the series, the Islanders jumped out to a lead after game one by shading the Penguins 4-3 in overtime at home and followed up with a 3-1 victory two days later. Many experts felt the Penguins would be able to turn the tables once returning home, but they suffered their worst defeat of the set 4-1.
The Islanders are being led offensively by Jordan Eberle with three goals and five points and Matthew Barzal with four assists. Casey Cizikas has done well in the faceoff circles by winning 56.4 per cent of his draws and Robin Lehner has stood on his head in net with a sparkling 95.1 save percentage.
Things look pretty dire on the Pittsburgh side of things with just five goals scored in the first three games an no player having tallied more than once. Forward Evgeni Malkin and blue liner Justin Schultz have been the brightest bulbs with a goal and two assists each for three points. Center Matt Cullen has been even better than Cizikas on faceoffs though by winning 61.3 per cent of them, but goaltender Matt Murray‘s save percentage is 90.2 per cent and has been out played by Lehner.
As far as Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby goes, he hasn’t registered a point in three games, is a minus-4, has taken just six shots on net and has been charged with eight giveaways. This comes after he posted 35 goals and 65 assists for 100 points during the regular season. Jake Guentzel has also gone missing in action after notching 40 goals this season he’s pointless in the playoffs with a minus-3 rating.
The Penguins found themselves in the same 3-0 hole as recently as 2012/13 when they met Boston in the Eastern Conference Final. That didn’t end well as they were sent packing after the very next game.
But as Crosby told the media, they can’t come all the way back in just one night. They have to win one period and game at a time and hope for the best. It’s obvious they need to find a way to beat Lehner, get their big guns rolling and get more saves out of Murray.
They may succeed, but it’s highly unlikely. However, the members of the four NHL teams that did come back from a 3-0 deficit may feel it’s a piece of cake.