Friday night my Nashville Predators dropped an agonizing 1-0 game at home to the Phoenix Coyotes. The loss put the Preds in a 3-1 hole in the best-of-seven series.
As time expired, I decided to find out how often NHL teams had overcome a 3-1 deficit. It turns out that 229 teams have gone down 3-1; 20 have rallied to win the series. So it happens 8.7 percent of the time.
Since the statistics were not in my favor, I decided to focus instead on specific instances of teams—in any professional sport—making dramatic playoff comebacks. If I kept reminding myself of what the Flyers did to the Bruins in 2010 or what the Red Sox did to the Yankees in 2004, I would have hope.
So I put together this list.
Alas, the Predators lost Game 5 last night, leaving me to stress out about free agency. But perhaps this list can bring hope to fans of the Memphis Grizzlies (down 3-1 to the Clippers) or Denver Nuggets (trailing 3-1 to the Lakers).
A couple quick notes: This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive. There have been a lot of magnificent comebacks in the history of professional sporta. These are eight of my favorite.
Also, I limited this list to professional sports in which teams play multi-game series. Thus there are no single-game comebacks.
2010 Philadelphia Flyers, down 3-0, win 4 straight to beat the Boston Bruins.
Prior to this series the Bruins and Flyers hadn’t met in the Playoffs since 1978. But after the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference went down in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the sixth seeded Bruins and seventh seeded Flyers faced off in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Boston, who would come back the following year to win the Cup, won Game 1 in overtime then won Game 2 3-2. The Bruins took a 2-0 lead back to Philadelphia then dominated the first game in the City of Brotherly Love, winning Game 3 4-1.
Statistically, taking a 3-0 lead in a seven-game series is nearly as good as winning it outright. But even when the chances of winning the series are slim, no team wants to be swept.
The Flyers, wanting to keep the brooms in the closet, took a 3-1 lead midway through the second period of Game 4. The Bruins rallied, but Philly scored 14:20 into the final period to go up 4-3. Just when the Flyers appeared to have succeeded in their bid to avoid a sweep, the Bruins tied the game with 0:31.5 on the clock. Discouraged but not defeated, Philadelphia scored in overtime to take Game 4.
Game 5, back in Boston, wasn’t nearly so dramatic. The Flyers shut out the Bruins 4-0, cutting Boston’s lead in the series to 3-2. Philadelphia followed that victory with a pair of close wins, one at home and one in Game 7 in Boston to clinch the series.
The 2010 Flyers became the first NHL team to win a playoff series after losing the first three games since the 1975 New York Islanders. The Islanders in that year’s Stanley Cup Quarterfinals dropped the first three games to the Pittsburgh Penguins, then won Games 4-7 to take the series.
The Flyers went on to defeat Montreal 4-1 to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to the Blackhawks in six games.
Toronto Maple Leafs rally from a 3-0 hole to win the Stanley Cup.
Three teams in NHL history have won a series in which they trailed 3-0: the 2010 Flyers, the 1975 Islanders, and the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs. Unlike the Flyers and Islanders, who completed their comebacks in the second round of the Playoffs, the Leafs rallied in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Maple Leafs finished second in the seven-team NHL in 1942. Their Finals opponent, the Detroit Red Wings, finished fifth. The postseason format at the time had the top two teams (the Maple Leafs and New York Rangers) play a seven-game series for a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals. Teams 3-6, meanwhile, played a four-team, best-of-three tournament to decide the other finalist. While Toronto was going six games against the best team in hockey, Detroit was playing five games: three against seventh-place Montreal and two against third-place Boston.
The Red Wings won Games 1 and 2 in Toronto then, after a short trip down Highway 401, won the first game in Detroit. The Leafs won a close one on the road in Game 4 then dominated Games 5, 6, and 7, winning the final three games by a combined score of 15-4 and claiming Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Deportivo La Coruña overcomes 3-goal deficit in second leg of the 2004 Champions League quarters.
In the first leg of their 2004 UEFA Champions League quarterfinal, Deportivo La Coruña (from La Liga, Spain) took an early 1-0 lead over AC Milan (from Serie A, Italy), in Milan. But that was all Deportivo did. Milan scored four goals to take a 4-1 lead into the second leg.
To advance to the semifinals, Deportivo needed to outscore Milan by four goals at home. Depor did exactly that.
By halftime, they had taken a 3-0 lead. (If the match had ended with a score of 3-0, the aggregate score would have been 4-4, and Deportivo would have won on the away-goals tiebreaker.) Milan controlled possession for much of the second half, but they were unable to score. Deportivo added one more goal to win outright, 5-4.
Wisla, within a half-second of elimination, comes back to win the 2007 PLKK Championship.
The WNBA has only been around since 1997. But Polska Liga Koszykówki Kobiet (PLKK), Poland’s top women’s basketball league (and one of the best women’s hoops leagues in the world), has been crowning champions since 1929. Many top American players play in the PLKK during the winter.
Wisla Krakow, the Boston Celtics of Polish women’s basketball, has won 22 of the league’s 76 titles (including the last two). Lotos Gdynia has won 11 championships, all since 1996. The two teams dominated the PLKK in 2006-07, finishing 21-1 and 20-2, respectively. It was no surprise when Wisla and Lotos met in the PLKK Championship finals. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the two teams were a combined 12-1.
Lotos took control of the best-of-seven finals series, getting out to a 3-1 lead. They appeared to have the fifth game, and the championship, in hand. Leading 64-63 with time running out, Lotos had a foul to give that they elected not to use, and Wisla’s Dominique Canty (who plays for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky during the summer) got loose and hit the game winner with 0:00.5 on the clock.
Wisla, whose roster also included American star Chamique Holdsclaw, took the sixth and seventh games, winning the second of three consecutive titles.
The 1994 Denver Nuggets come back, become the first 8 seed to upset a 1 seed in the NBA Playoffs.
The Seattle Supersonics boasted the NBA’s best record in the Michael Jordan-less 1993-94 season. In the first round of the Playoffs, the 63-win Sonics faced the eighth-seeded, 42-40 Denver Nuggets.
Seattle, led by All Stars Shawn Kemp and Gary Peyton, won the first two games without much trouble. But the Nuggets held serve, winning Games 3 and 4 in Denver. The series returned to Seattle for the fifth and deciding game.
Denver, who had won Game 4 in overtime, again needed an extra five minutes to finish the Sonics. The Nuggets held on in OT for a 98-94 victory. As time expired in overtime, Denver’s All-Star center Dikembe Mutombo fell to the floor, holding the ball over his head. The Nuggets had become the first 8 seed to beat a top seed in the NBA Playoffs.
The Celtics rally to beat the 76ers, twice.
No NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit in a seven-game series. But eight teams have successfully rallied after trailing 3-1. Two of those teams wore Boston Celtics uniforms and, in both cases, faced the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 1968 NBA Playoffs saw the top-seeded Sixers and second-seeded Celtics meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. Philadelphia was the defending NBA champion and had the league’s best regular season record. Boston had won ten of the last eleven titles.
The Celtics took Game 1 in Philadelphia before surrendering Games 2, 3, and 4 to the Sixers. Led by player-coach Bill Russell and hall-of-famer John Havilcek, Boston won Game 5 convincingly then prevailed in close contests in Games 6 and 7 to become the first NBA team to win a series in which it had trailed 3-1.
Thirteen years later the Celtics did it again in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. Boston and Philly had tied for the league’s best record that season with a mark of 62-20. (The Celtics got the top seed by virtue of tiebreakers and enjoyed a bye in the first round of the Playoffs.) Prior to the 1980-81 season Boston had added Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to a team that already had Larry Bird and Nate Archibald. The 76ers, who had advanced to the NBA Finals one year earlier, had a roster that included league MVP Julius Erving along with Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, and rookie Andrew Toney.
Though Boston won Game 2 by a large margin, the Sixers won Games 1, 3, and 4 to take a 3-1 lead. Just as they had done in 1968, the Celtics won the final three games to capture the series. Games 5 and 6 were decided by only two points each. The Celtics won Game 7 by a single point, 91-90. Once again, Boston had stolen a series from its biggest conference rival. (As you read above, Philadelphia would get its revenge 29 years later.)
2004 Red Sox win four straight over the Yankees en route to first title in 86 years.
I’ll spare you the worn out “Curse of the Bambino” narrative and simply say that, going into the 2004 American League Championship Series, the New York Yankees were the most storied franchise in baseball and the Boston Red Sox were among the least fortunate, having last won a title in 1918.
One year earlier the two division rivals had met in the 2003 ALCS. The series went a full seven games. Boston took a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 7, but New York ended up winning on an Aaron Boone walk-off homer in the bottom of the eleventh.
The 2004 ALCS seemed to bring more of the same for Red Sox fans. The Yankees won the first three games, including a 19-8 skewering in Game 3.
But in Game 4 things changed. The Sox stole a run from Yankees closer Mariano Rivera to send the game into extra innings. Both teams went scoreless in the tenth and eleventh. The Boston’s David Ortiz hit a game-clenching two-run home run in the twelfth. Game 5 saw another Sox comeback and another extra innings victory.
Having won two games in Boston the Red Sox went back to New York needing two more. In Game 6 the Sox took a 4-0 lead in the fourth and held off the Yankees for a 4-2 win. Winning pitcher Curt Schilling went seven innings—giving up only one run—with a torn tendon sheath in his right angle. By the end of the night, his sock was soaked with blood.
Game 7 lacked the drama of Games 4, 5, and 6. The Red Sox scored two runs in the first inning and four in the second. By the fourth, they’d built an 8-1 lead. Boston won Game 7 10-3 to do what no Major League baseball team had done before: win a seven-game postseason series after trailing 3-0.
The Red Sox kept winning, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 2004 World Series, the team’s first in 86 years.