Lightning may not strike twice, but the Tampa Bay Lightning will need to strike four times in a row if they want to avoid embarrassment at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Lightning's regular season was one of the best in NHL history, with the team's 62 wins tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the single-season record. Naturally, a first-round playoff meeting against the Blue Jackets – who squeaked into the playoffs with one day left in the regular season – wasn't seen as much of a challenge. But through three games, nothing has gone to plan for the Lightning. In Game 3, the team was without forward Nikita Kucherov (suspension) and defensemen Victor Hedman (undisclosed injury) and Anton Stralman (lower-body injury), leaving the rest of the lineup to pick up the slack. The result? Columbus played its most commanding game of the series, earning a 3-1 victory and 3-0 series lead.
With Game 4 set for Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena, the Blue Jackets are one win away from their first playoff series victory ever in a series that, on paper, shouldn't have even been close. Uh oh.
But the Lightning aren't alone, as the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in a similar situation. Down 3-0 to the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh heads into Tuesday's contest desperate to find its footing and instill some fear into the Islanders. The Penguins haven't missed the second round of the playoffs since 2015 – which was followed by back-to-back Stanley Cups – and have only been swept three times in franchise history, twice at the hands of the Boston Bruins.
The Islanders' matchup for Pittsburgh at least was expected to be close. But Tampa Bay? That's a unique situation. No Presidents' Trophy winner has ever been swept in the first round, and only three regular-season champions have ever been swept in any series, period, with the New Jersey Devils' 1995 Stanley Cup victory over the Detroit Red Wings the most recent example. If you put money on a potential sweep by the Blue Jackets, please send us your phone number. Let's be friends.
So, what are the odds that either the Lightning or Penguins come all the way back? As you'd imagine, not great. But just how rare of an occurrence is the so-called reverse sweep?
Only four teams in NHL history have escaped a 3-0 series deficit and proceeded to win the series. The first instance came in 1942, when the Toronto Maple Leafs came from behind to beat the Red Wings for the Stanley Cup, marking the first time the final had gone to seven games. The Islanders clawed back to beat the Penguins during their second-round matchup in 1975, but unlike Toronto, the Islanders were eliminated in the third round. More recently, the Philadelphia Flyers pulled off a miracle run to erase a 3-0 series deficit and beat the Boston Bruins in the 2010 Eastern Conference final before eventually falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final. And how could we forget the San Jose Sharks blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead against the rival Los Angeles Kings, with the Kings bouncing back to win in Game 7 in the first round before winning the 2014 Stanley Cup?
Compared to other sports, however, the (slim) odds still look better for NHL teams. No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 series deficit, while just once in MLB history has a team crawled out of the 3-0 hole. That came in 2003, when the Boston Red Sox rattled off four straight wins against the rival New York Yankees, advancing to the World Series and sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals. But that's five 3-0 comebacks between the three sports, with the NHL claiming four of them. Teams with 3-0 series leads have won 185 of the 189 previous rounds in the NHL, or 97.8 percent of the time, per whowins.com, and 98.6 percent of the time across the NHL, MLB and NBA.
Making matters worse for the Lightning and Penguins, though, is that of the 54 times an NHL team has fallen behind 3-0 in the first round, the Kings are the only club in league history to have produced a comeback. So expecting both teams, let alone just one, to move on is statistically unlikely.
Of course, it's a best-of-7 format for a reason and it's not over until yet for either team. Tampa Bay will get Kucherov back, and it's safe to say he'll be hungry for a goal after getting held off the scoresheet in the opening two games. For Pittsburgh, Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby are both looking for their first goals of the post-season, and if history is any indication, both know a thing or two about producing in the playoffs.
Then again, the numbers don't lie: coming back from a 3-0 series deficit is a rare accomplishment, and two of the top teams in the NHL will need more than a bit of luck if they want to stay alive this season.
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