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

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

That's more like 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 early on, the series score clearly told a different story.

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

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

That it's been a whole decade since the last time this happened is even wilder than it first seems.

There is perhaps nothing more exciting in sports than a comeback, a team coming back from the dead against all odds. On a game-by-game basis, hockey fans have been blessed in that regard over the past few seasons. The “most dangerous lead in hockey” remains, but it is also extended to the three- and four-goal lead, which has evaporated at a much faster pace in recent years. In this sport, no lead is truly safe.

And yet, that rising comeback mentality hasn't extended to playoff series. Over the past decade, a 3-0 lead might as well have been a foregone conclusion. It is a guarantee without any hope for the oppressed.

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

To some, that may seem like a non-story, given its rarity in hockey history. A 3-0 series lead is a hold that will be impossible to relinquish, a feat reserved for only the greatest choke artists.

Still with the increase in parity in the salary cap era, we should have seen a few more in the last decade, just by sheer coincidence. There's always a chance for even the most unexpected thing to happen, and the fact that those chances didn't materialize is fascinating.

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

While the odds are never in favor of a team trailing 3-0, they are not zero either. At least they shouldn't be. There is a myth that being 3-0 down only happens to the worst teams, who are extremely unlikely to crawl out of such a hole at first, but it can happen to even the best 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 start. Based on that – and taking into account a lower opinion of the team after three straight losses – the odds of at least forcing a Game 7 ranged from four percent to 20 percent. The chance of coming back ranged from one percent to 13 percent.

On average, we're talking about a one-in-10 chance of forcing Game 7 and a one-in-20 chance of winning the series after a 3-0 loss. Those are obviously minuscule odds, but over 30+ series, those small odds add up.

Based on each team's chances after trailing 3-0, we should have seen three Game 7s with one or two full comebacks. Instead we have zero. In short: we have been robbed.

Some will be quick to point out the human element of all this, and that's a very valid point. With a 3-0 lead, many teams showed the necessary killer instinct to close out the series. Trailing 3-0, many teams have folded at the prospect of the mountain ahead. Sometimes the teams that are down 3-0 just aren't as good as they expected from the jump. Or the 3-0 lead is a lot better.

As valid as these points may seem, the odds of there not being a Game 7 for a team down 3-0, let alone a comeback, are still very low – low enough that even real quality counters can't do it explain away. Given 30 cases with an average 10.6 percent chance of seeing a Game 7, there's a 97 percent chance we should have seen at least one. A 5.2 percent chance of seeing a comeback in thirty cases gives us an 80 percent chance of seeing at least one on that front.

The potential for chaos has been great enough over the past decade; they just haven't manifested themselves. This can happen with small samples; 30 series certainly qualifies for this.

However, over a larger sample, the odds tend to even out, and the best way to see this is to look at the beginning of the salary cap era. There the opportunities perfectly reflect reality.

From 2006 to 2014, there were 38 series where 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).

Screenshot 2024 05 14 at 3.57.33%E2%80%AFPM

Their average chances? Same as the last decade: 11 percent to force a Game 7 and five percent to complete the comeback.

Add up all the odds and that nine-year period produced exactly the amount of dramatic chaos as expected: 4.1 Game 7s and 2.1 comebacks. It is in stark contrast to what we have received over the past decade. Hockey fans have been long overdue.

Screenshot 2024 05 14 at 3.57.08%E2%80%AFPM

Too late doesn't mean it will happen soon. It's a fallacy to suggest there will be more Game 7s and comebacks after a team loses 3-0 simply because it hasn't happened in a while. That doesn't make it more likely that this will happen in the near future. The odds still average about one in 10 for a Game 7 and one in 20 for a comeback.

But we're as close as we can get with the Hurricanes.

For Carolina specifically, the odds have changed after winning Games 4 and 5. Now there's a better than 60 percent chance of forcing a Game 7 and a better than 30 percent chance of completing the comeback. For the first time in a decade, we have a serious chance to witness history.

The odds are still heavily in Rangers' favour, with a 3-2 lead, and no one is counting on the Presidents' Trophy champions failing to get the necessary fourth win. But the Hurricanes also have a great team, one with a real chance to live up to their slogan: “cause chaos.”

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

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