How a Carolina Hurricanes comeback can reverse a decade-long trend

How a Carolina Hurricanes comeback can reverse a decade-long trend

After starting the second round with three straight losses, the Carolina Hurricanes have officially made it a series with thrilling back-to-back wins in Games 4 and 5. 

That’s more akin to what many expected from this series before it started — a close, hard-fought battle between the two titans of the Metropolitan Division. While it certainly played out that way on the ice with three one-goal games to start, the series score obviously told a different story.

On Thursday night in Game 6, the Hurricanes have a very real chance to flip that script, as they’ll be relatively heavy favorites at home to push the series to a Game 7 with a third straight win of their own.

That may be a nauseating thought for Rangers fans, but it’s a rare treat for hockey fans at large. It would be the first time since 2014 that a team forced a Game 7 after starting a series down 3-0, when the Los Angeles Kings rallied in the first round to eliminate the San Jose Sharks.

That it’s been an entire decade since the last such instance is wilder than it seems at first blush. 

There may not be anything more exciting in sport than a comeback, a down-and-out team returning from the dead against all odds. On a game-by-game basis, hockey fans have been blessed in that department over the last few seasons. The “most dangerous lead in hockey” remains, but that’s also extended to three-goal and four-goal cushions, which have evaporated at a much higher rate in recent years. In this sport, truly no lead is safe.

And yet that rising comeback mentality hasn’t extended to playoff series. Over the last decade, a 3-0 series lead might as well be a done deal. It’s a guarantee with zero hope for the downtrodden. 

It’s not even that there haven’t been any comebacks; it’s that there hasn’t even been a team that was close, with zero Game 7s to speak of in those situations.

To some, that may seem like a non-story, given the rarity throughout hockey history. A 3-0 series lead is a vice-grip that should be impossible to let go of, a feat reserved for only the biggest of choke artists.

Still with the increase in parity in the salary-cap era, we should’ve seen a few more over the last decade just by pure chance. There’s always a chance of even the most unexpected thing happening and the fact those chances haven’t come to fruition is fascinating.

Since 2015, there have been 30 instances of a team being down 3-0, and 60 percent of those ended unceremoniously in a sweep. Only four (13 percent) even made it to Game 6, where the Hurricanes are now — with last year’s Dallas Stars being the first to even manage that in eight(!) seasons.

While the odds are never in the favor of a team down 3-0, they aren’t zero, either. At least they shouldn’t be. There’s a myth that a 3-0 deficit only happens to the worst teams, those that would be extremely unlikely to crawl out of such a hole to begin with, but it can happen to even the best of teams.

Before the series began, the 30 teams ranged from 17 percent underdogs to 77 percent favorites (hello 2019 Tampa Bay Lightning) based on series prices from Sports Odds History. Of the 30, 13 teams were expected to win from the onset. Based on that — and accounting for a lesser opinion of the team after losing three straight — the odds of at least forcing Game 7 ranged from four percent to 20 percent. The odds of coming back ranged from one percent to 13 percent.

On average, we’re talking a one-in-10 shot at forcing Game 7 and a one-in-20 shot at winning the series after going down 3-0. Those are clearly minuscule odds, but over 30 series, those tiny odds add up. 

Based on each team’s odds after being down 3-0, we should’ve seen three Game 7s with one or two full-blown comebacks. We’ve got zero instead. In short — we’ve been robbed.

Some will be quick to point out the human element of it all, and it’s a very fair point. Up 3-0, a lot of teams have shown the necessary killer instinct to close the series. Down 3-0, a lot of teams have folded at the prospect of the mountain ahead. Sometimes, the teams down 3-0 are simply not as good as they were expected to be from the jump. Or the team up 3-0 is a lot better.

As valid as those points may seem, the odds of not seeing a Game 7 for a team down 3-0 let alone a comeback is still very low — low enough that even real qualitative counters can’t explain it away. Given 30 instances with an average of a 10.6 percent chance of seeing a Game 7, there’s a 97 percent chance we should’ve seen at least one. A 5.2 percent chance of seeing a comeback over 30 instances gives us an 80 percent chance of seeing at least one on that front.

The odds of chaos have been high enough over the last decade; they just haven’t manifested. That can happen over small samples; 30 series definitely qualifies for that.

Over a larger sample, the odds do tend to even out, though, and that’s best exhibited from looking at the start of the salary cap era. There, the odds perfectly reflect reality.

From 2006 to 2014, there were 38 series in which a team went down 3-0 — but those teams clearly had a bit more fight in them. A higher percentage won at least one game (57 percent), two forced a Game 7 and lost (Detroit and Chicago in 2011), and two of those teams won (Los Angeles in 2014 and Philadelphia in 2010).

Their average odds? The same as the last decade: 11 percent to force Game 7 and five percent to complete the comeback.

Add up all the odds, and that nine-year period got the exact amount of dramatic chaos as expected: 4.1 Game 7s and 2.1 comebacks. It’s a stark contrast from what we’ve received over the last decade. Hockey fans are long overdue.

Overdue doesn’t mean it’s due to happen. It’s a fallacy to suggest there will be more Game 7s and comebacks after a team goes down 3-0 simply because it hasn’t happened in a while. That doesn’t make it more likely to happen in the near future. The odds, on average, are still about one-in-10 for a Game 7 and one-in-20 for a comeback.

But we’re as close as we can get here with the Hurricanes.

For Carolina, specifically, the odds have changed after winning Games 4 and 5. Now it’s an over 60 percent chance of forcing Game 7 and an over 30 percent chance of completing the comeback. For the first time in a decade, we have a serious chance of witnessing history. 

The odds are still heavily in the Rangers’ favor here up 3-2 and no one is counting out the Presidents’ Trophy champions from grabbing that necessary fourth win. But the Hurricanes have a great team too, one with a real chance of living up to their slogan: “cause chaos.”

(Photo: Joshua Sarner / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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