EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – These are hockey players, not history majors. Ask the New Jersey Devils how many NHL teams have overcome a 3-0 deficit and won a best-of-seven playoff series, as they are halfway to doing against the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final, and they have no idea.
"Four or five teams, right?" said defenseman Henrik Tallinder.
"Isn't it just two?" said captain Zach Parise.
And if Parise doesn't know, that says something. His father, J.P., played on one of the teams that did it, the 1975 New York Islanders. These guys are guessing. You get the feeling that if this were multiple choice, they would just close their eyes, circle "C" and hope for the best.
The answer is three.
"Three?" Parise said.
Three. The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, '75 Islanders and 2010 Philadelphia Flyers. Asked when he learned that, rookie Adam Henrique smiled at a reporter.
"Just now," he said.
But that's all that matters to them, just now, and that's all that should matter, Game 6 on Monday night at Staples Center. Win that, and the Devils force Game 7 on Wednesday night back in Newark. Win that, and they will go down in the books the way they really intended.
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Climbing out of a 3-0 hole is kind of a dubious honor. You don't want to fall into trouble that deep in the first place. Asked if this is a team that can make history, coach Pete DeBoer said: "Oh, I don't know. We're just trying to win a Stanley Cup."
Here's the thing about history: We love labels like "biggest" or "greatest" – even if we have to sneak in qualifiers like "one of the" or "since [fill in the blank]" – because they add to the drama and importance. Frankly, someone wins the Cup every year. We're always looking for why this Cup run might be different than the rest.
Because past is prologue, we use history to try to predict the future, too, or at least to illustrate the odds. We can find it relevant or interesting whether the players do or not.
But it's also relevant and interesting that the players do not necessarily carry the weight of history on their backs, and here's the thing about this particular piece of history: It might not mean what it used to.
Coming back from a 3-0 deficit is going from nearly impossible to merely improbable. When the salary cap was introduced in 2005, it begat parity. Parity begat unpredictability. Unpredictability begat belief.
Thirty-three years passed between the '42 Leafs and '75 Islanders. Thirty-five years passed between the '75 Isles and 2010 Flyers. Prediction: Three-and-a-half decades won't pass before it happens again, whether these Devils do it or not.
From 1976 to 2009, 112 teams faced a 3-0 series deficit, and not one even forced a Game 7. But not only did the Flyers come back to win a series in 2010, two teams came back to force a Game 7 last year – the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.
How crazy has the NHL become? Look at the flipside: Blowing a 3-0 series lead – or almost blowing it – doesn't indicate a fatal flaw. The Boston Bruins were the ones who blew it against the Flyers in 2010, and those choking dogs suddenly transformed into the greatest clutch team of all-time last year, becoming the first to win three Game 7s on the way to the Cup. The team they met in the final was the team that almost blew it against the Blackhawks: the Vancouver Canucks.
"I think hockey's changed in the new era," said Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, a 40-year-old veteran and three-time champion. "Definitely when teams go down in series or games, there's time. There's always time."
When the NHL was more of a top-heavy league, if a team took a 3-0 series lead, it almost certainly indicated clear superiority. Something major would have to happen to turn around the series. But now if a team takes a 3-0 series lead, it might just mean that team got the breaks and bounces early, and those breaks and bounces could even out.
A history lesson: The '42 Leafs came back against the Wings after Toronto coach Hap Day benched his leading scorer and Detroit coach Jack Adams was suspended for assaulting an official. The '75 Isles came back against the Pittsburgh Penguins after Chico Resch took over in goal.
There have been clear turning points lately, too. The 2010 Flyers came back at least partly because of injuries, with Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter and Michael Leighton returning to their lineup, while David Krejci and Marco Sturm left the Bruins'. The 2011 Blackhawks forced Game 7 after the Canucks' Raffi Torres upset them with a borderline hit in Game 3 and key cog David Bolland came back from a concussion in Game 4.
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But when the 2011 Wings forced a Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks, there was no clear turning point. These were two evenly matched teams. The Wings knew comebacks and near comebacks had happened recently. They simply believed the series was closer than it appeared, and if they kept working, they would get the breaks.
Same with these Devils. The first two games were 1-1 heading into overtime; the Kings eked out both. Even though Game 3 was a 4-0 loss, it was tight until the Kings blew it open. The last two were one-goal games again, just like the first two. The Devils were actually outplayed in Game 5. But they got the breaks they didn't get before. This time, the Kings were the ones hitting goalposts.
When the Kings took a 3-0 lead in the series, they had a 15-2 record in the playoffs. It seemed highly unlikely they would lose four straight after losing two out of 17 games. It is still unlikely, just not as highly.
Remember these are still the eighth-seeded Kings against the sixth-seeded Devils. Whoever wins will be the lowest-seeded team to win the Cup since the league started seeding teams in 1994. The odds have mattered little to this point, and history, one way or another, will be framed after the fact.
Asked if he thought the odds were still against the Devils, Parise essentially shrugged. "Probably," he said. "I don't know."
All the Devils know is that they have to win, that they can win, and if they do, they will become the third … or fourth … or fifth …
Whatever. If they party with the Cup, somebody else can figure it out.
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