Comebacks, chokes and surviving Game 7

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

One week ago, Ken Holland walked into his office with a smile. It was a beautiful May day in Detroit, and Holland was in a good enough mood to joke that the sun had come up even though he wasn’t sure it would. He seemed remarkably relaxed for the general manager of a team facing a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series.

“I don’t know when we’re ever going to get a chance to be down 3-0 in the second round in a series that’s as even as this,” Holland said then, sitting behind his desk at Joe Louis Arena. “Let’s see what we can do with it. I’m not worried about winning the series. We’ve got to win a game. We’ve just got to win one game.”

Well, the Red Wings won a game. And then another. And then another. And now we’ll see if they can win Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks.

The Wings will either complete one of the greatest comebacks in NHL history or go down trying Thursday night. The Sharks will either complete one of the biggest chokes in NHL history – adding to a pile of playoff disappointments – or emerge as resilient survivors.

It’s a big deal. But in time, it might not seem as big a deal as it does today, because coming back from a 3-0 deficit – or coughing up a 3-0 lead – is going from nearly impossible to merely improbable. It’s part of the unpredictability that came with the salary cap and the new rules instituted after the 2004-05 lockout. The trend says it’s going to happen more frequently in the future.

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The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs were the first team to rally from a 3-0 deficit and win a playoff series. No one did it again until the 1975 New York Islanders. Starting in 1976, 112 teams had a chance to do it – and not one even forced a Game 7.

Then the Philadelphia Flyers rallied from a 3-0 deficit and beat the Boston Bruins in the second round last year, and the Chicago Blackhawks rallied from a 3-0 deficit and forced a Game 7 in the first round this year, only to lose in overtime to the Vancouver Canucks.

“I’m not surprised that Philadelphia came back from 3-0,” Holland said last week. “I’m not surprised that Chicago came back from 3-0 to go to overtime in Game 7. It’s parity.”

Should anyone be that surprised then, at least in retrospect, that Detroit has come back from 3-0 to force a Game 7?

“It’s a wide-open league,” Holland said last week. “I look at our sport a lot like the NFL now. In the NFL, there are good teams. The New England Patriots have been able to be a playoff team every year, and a few years ago they had a dynasty. But sometimes they advance, sometimes they get upset in the playoffs, and it’s the same. You just want opportunities.”

* * * * *

The salary cap has distributed talent more evenly throughout the NHL, and the talent level is especially close among the 16 teams that make the playoffs. Although the top three seeds in each conference won in the first round this year, low seeds have begun to go deep routinely. Even if a No. 8 takes down a No. 1, it isn’t the upset it used to be.

“Before there were always a few teams that were in the upper echelon,” said legendary coach Scotty Bowman, now a senior advisor to the Blackhawks. “They were distinctly better than the other teams. There still could have been upsets, but there’s not as many upsets now because of the competitive balance.”

The new rules have opened up the action and made it more difficult to sit on leads. There used to be one referee walking the beat like a small-town sheriff, using his experience and instinct, letting things go if they didn’t directly affect the play. Now there are two referees making calls on a more black-and-white basis – for better and for worse – and they’re cracking down not just on hooking and holding, but other sins like stick infractions in front of the net.

“Before, when defensemen could defend a lot easier, the forwards covered the point men, and there was probably a lot more open ice around the net,” Bowman said. “It’s harder to defend in your own zone now. The coaches have tried to even it up a bit by changing the style in your own end and putting a lot of people in the traffic area. In the scoring zone, there’s always a lot more people there, so it’s hard to get pucks through, although some can hit guys.”

I wonder if that adds even more randomness to a game that already has plenty. If the talent is more even and the coaching is more sophisticated – and home ice doesn’t mean as much because all the new buildings are virtually the same – are more games being decided by pucks deflecting off skates and sticks and shin pads? How many fluky, important goals have we seen?

But if you keep skating, keep pushing, keep working, keep putting people and pucks in the scoring zone, you can increase your odds. That’s what it means when they say “you make your own breaks.”

Anything can happen. Everybody knows it, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, too.

Teams keep coming back from big deficits within games. “I guess more teams are believing,” Bruins forward Milan Lucic(notes) said. “There’s no give-up in anyone. It almost seems like a 3-0 lead is the worst lead in hockey now.”

Teams keep coming back from big deficits within series. “The more comebacks happen, the more teams believe that, ‘Hey, we can do this,’ ” said Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, whose Bolts rebounded from a 3-1 series deficit in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. “It’s possible.”

* * * * *

This series illustrates the new dynamic. The Sharks and Red Wings are the only two teams that have made the playoffs every season since the lockout. They were separated by one point during the regular season, with the Sharks surging late to edge the Wings for second place in the Western Conference. They have deep rosters and play a similar style, with Todd McLellan having left his job as a Wings assistant to coach the Sharks.

One week ago, the Sharks seemed to have proven themselves as the better team. They had taken a 3-0 series lead over the Wings in the second round last year and eliminated them in five games. Now they had another 3-0 series lead over them. Seven of the eight games had been decided by one goal – three of them in overtime, including the last two – but the fact the Sharks had come out on top consistently trumped the fact that the games and the teams were so close.

But now the series has turned, and you can’t point to anything in particular like you can with the other historic comebacks.

The 1942 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 1975 Isles came back against the Pens after Chico Resch took over in goal. The 2010 Flyers came back at least partly because of injuries, getting back Simon Gagne(notes), Jeff Carter(notes) and Michael Leighton(notes) while the Bruins lost Marco Sturm(notes) and David Krejci(notes).

The Blackhawks forced Game 7 against the Canucks after Vancouver’s Raffi Torres(notes) upset them with a hit he threw in Game 3 and they got key cog David Bolland back in Game 4, and these were the defending Stanley Cup champions facing a team they had eliminated from the playoffs the past two years.

The Wings have forced Game 7 simply because they believed they were close and if they kept working they might get the breaks. They blew a 3-0 lead in Game 4 but won, 4-3. They came back from a 3-1 deficit in Game 5 and won, 4-3. They dominated Game 6 and didn’t collapse after allowing the Sharks a fluky first goal in the third period, roaring back to win, 3-1. If not for an empty-netter, it would have been another one-goal game.

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“Don’t give up?” Wings center Pavel Datsyuk(notes) said. “What locker room you come to? Never give up.”

When the teams are this close, it could come down to character traits such as poise and will. “I think we both know our systems so well that we know how to play,” Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) said. “It’s a matter of outbattling other guys out there.”

If the Sharks lose, they will have choked, make no mistake. You can’t cough up a 3-0 lead to anyone in any era and shrug it off to circumstance, especially not in San Jose, where the Sharks have teased their fans with so many outstanding regular seasons but have never made the Stanley Cup final.

But it’s not as if the Sharks are gutless, no matter what Jeremy Roenick(notes) says about Patrick Marleau(notes). They came back from a 4-0 deficit and won a 6-5 overtime game against the Los Angeles Kings in the opening round. They came back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 4 of this series before falling. The Sharks and Wings have been tied or separated by one goal for 90 percent of the series (336:43 of 376:24), according to the NHL.

And these days, in situations like these, it could come down to a flip of a coin. It might go your way once, twice, three times. But keep flipping long enough, and the results will even out.

“At 3-0, we had won three games in a row,” McLellan said. “At 3-3, they’ve won three games in a row. That’s why these series are all odd games. We could be in the exact same situation we are right now by winning one, losing one, winning one, losing one, winning one, losing one. Doesn’t matter how we got here. It really doesn’t. What matters is how it ends.”

One flip left.

“Toss it up,” Wings forward Danny Cleary(notes) said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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