Monday, May 17, 2010

How much did the Flyers break the odds? How long will it be before it happens again?

Philadelphia Flyers Simon Gagne celebrates his goal on the Boston Bruins during the third period in Game 7 of their NHL Eastern Conference semi-final hockey game in Boston

I know time travel hasn’t been invented yet (presumably), but let’s go back to the morning of May 7, 2010. The Boston Bruins have dominated the Philadelphia Flyers in every possible way in building a 3-0 series lead and look poised to advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1992. Boston outscored Philadelphia 12-6 (including a 5-4 overtime victory in Game 1 where Marc Savard scored in an emotional return to the ice), played smart and confidently in defence and received stellar goaltending from Tuuka Rask. Sure, David Krejci, one of the Bruins’ top forwards went down and Philadelphia was welcoming back Simon Gagne from injury, but, on paper it shouldn’t have changed the series much. The way Boston was playing it didn’t matter who was on the ice- the Bruin defence was efficiently handling the breakout passes the Flyer defenders were trying to hit and stifling any rush the Flyers tried to generate, and Gagne wasn’t going to make the Flyers any faster as a team. Rask, Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, former Flyer Mark Recchi and the rest of the Bruins- as well as their fans- were so close to the Conference Finals they could taste it. Even if we fast forward to the end of the game, where Philadelphia won 5-4 in overtime, there was little to suggest that the Flyers had a comeback in them. After all, the Bruins did overcome two Flyer leads in the game (3-1 and 4-3) and scored late to tie the game- Gagne’s winner merely “rescued” the Flyers from a collapse. A series win for Boston was inevitable.

Fast forward to today and it’s the Bruins who are watching those very Flyers they were poised to put away romp all over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Conference Finals. That groan you heard was Chara, seeing the ease at which the Flyers were disposing of Montreal, and thinking “that could have been us”. How quickly things have changed.

I could go on with an analysis of just how the Bruins choked away their biggest series victory in recent memory, but that analysis- Krejci’s loss coupled with Gagne’s return changed the balance of offensive power in the series- has been done to death so I won’t do that. Instead, I’m going to give you a picture of just how much the Flyers beat the odds in defeating the Bruins, because that is truly remarkable.

First, let’s assume straight probability (which is never a given in sports) and assume that two teams enter a series evenly matched, which you could apply to Boston and Philadelphia when it began (though Boston had the goaltending edge with both teams only having slight edges elsewhere- Philadelphia on offence and Boston on defence). Assuming an even matchup, the probability of a team winning a game is therefore 50%. Multiply those odds over multiple games and it gets lower. The likelihood of winning two straight games is 25% (1/2=50%, 1/2x1/2=1/4=25%) and the likelihood of winning three straight games is 12.5% (1/2x1/2x1/2=1/8=12.5%). So the Bruins themselves appeared to “beat the odds” in claiming a 3-0 series lead, though the actual rate of 3-0 series leads in the NHL is an astounding 28% (161 times out of 558 total best-of-seven series, up to this writing).

The Flyers, therefore, had their work cut out for them, knowing they have nominal odds of 12.5% of just getting the series back to Boston for Game 7. The odds of going all the way were even longer. Continuing the above calculation, for one team to win four straight games, the odds are a low 6.25% (1/2x1/2x1/2x1/2=1/16=6.25%). So even against straight probability the Flyers knew they faced a significant challenge all from putting themselves in a statistical long shot.

However, the challenge turned out to be even greater. The Flyers became the 161st team to fall behind in a series 3-0, and, in the 160 other times it happened (as it would turn out with the San Jose Sharks’ defeat of the Detroit Red Wings), only two teams (the oft-mentioned 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders) had managed to come back from 3-0 down to win the series in seven. Worse, only five teams- in addition to the Leaf and Islander teams, the 1939 New York Rangers (against Boston), the 1945 Wings (against Toronto) and the ’75 Isles (a round later against Philadelphia- had so much as forced a seventh game in NHL history. Those odds translate to a 1.25% chance of winning the series (2 out of 160) and a 3.13% (5 out of 160) chance of just tying the series. For Philadelphia to succeed against NHL odds, they’d need to be the third team to win after being down 3-0 and the sixth team to force a seventh game in that situation, they would only bump the odds to 1.86% (3 out of 161) and 3.73% (6 out of 161) respectively, which are long odds indeed.

Yet the Flyers did it; and that just begs the question- how long will it wait before we get a chance to see it again?

I’ve already gone through the stats once before, but I’ll just repeat them to make it easier to follow this narrative. As stated previously, with the Flyers’ victory, it now means that in 161 cases where a team has fallen behind 3-0 in a series, three times has that team found a way to win the series. That’s a conversion rate of 1.86%, or roughly a conversion once every 53 times. Prorated over an entire NHL playoff year- indicating the likeliness of any series featuring an 0-3 comeback, including those where an 0-3 hole isn’t created- the incidence rate in the NHL is a imperceptible 0.54%, or an occurrence once every 186 series. Considering the current NHL format of 15 playoff series per year, each being a best-of-seven, 186 series covers a span of roughly 12 years, so if current trends continue to hold, it won’t be before 2022 playoffs before we see the Bruins someone blow a 3-0 series lead again. That’s only if the statistical trends continue- remember, in real time it took a team 35 years to overcome a 3-0 series deficit again, and it could be that long before it happens again, if not longer. It does bears mentioning that the NHL first adopted a complete best-of-seven format for its entire playoffs for 1987, so for much of the NHL’s history there weren’t a lot of opportunities for 3-0 series leads to occur meaning the incidence rate of 0-3 comebacks should rise with more opportunities in the coming years.

That just covers hockey- as we know, two other major sports leagues have a best-of-seven series format somewhere in their playoffs and that is the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. The NBA’s playoff format is much like the NHL’s with 15 best-of-seven sets, though the decision to expand the playoffs only came in 2003, so this development is relatively new. MLB only has three playoff series being a best-of-seven- the two League Championship Series and the World Series- though it has been running best-of-sevens the longest, from the 1905 World Series to today, though not continuously- some series in the 1900s and 1910s were best-of-nine’s (the NHL, for reference, began best-of-sevens in 1939, whereas the NBA started in its first season in 1947). All told, though, the combined number of MLB and NBA best-of-sevens is 554, four less than the NHL total.

Amazingly enough, of those 554 series, just one- the infamous 2004 Boston Red Sox victory over the New York Yankees- was an 0-3 comeback. Before the Red Sox, no baseball team had so much as managed a Game 7 after being down 0-3, let alone win a series in such a manner. The NBA hasn’t seen one 0-3 comeback, and has played only three Game 7’s after that situation- the 1951 New York Knicks (against the Rochester Royals), 1994 Denver Nuggets (against the Utah Jazz) and the 2003 Portland Trail Blazers (against the Dallas Mavericks).

Key to those numbers is the low amount of 0-3 series compared to the NHL. The NBA has only seen 93 0-3 series in its history, while MLB has seen- surprisingly- eight series develop a 0-3 hole. That means that in the NBA and MLB, the incidence rate is a full 10% lower than it is in the NHL (18% from 101 series out of 554 vs. 161 out of 558 NHL series). The lower rate is particularly interesting considering that the NBA and MLB- combined- have roughly played the same amount of best-of-seven series as the NHL has, producing a rate that is closer to probability (12.5% chance of winning three straight games, with the MLB-NBA rate at 18%) than the NHL’s is (28%). It’s also particularly interesting that only one series of those 554 has seen a 0-3 comeback, though without multiple occurrences it’s hard to really formulate a statistical opinion.

All told, the statistics- if we combine the 1112 series the NBA, MLB and NHL have played, what we’re left with is 10 total series where a 0-3 hole has at least produced a seventh game and four series where the 0-3 team came back to win the series. If we take the numbers as they are and assume the leagues do not alter their playoff formats, then that leaves us with an 0-3 comeback across all the leagues in every playoff once every 683 series, or roughly once every 20 years (given 33 possible best-of-sevens). Of course, the lack of a NBA comeback skews the data, since it’s impossible for *every* team up 3-0 to win every time and thus we don’t know what the actual rate would be. Furthermore, the fact that the MLB and NBA don’t have the same number of 0-3’s as the NHL has is another impediment; since it is possible with the same amount of 0-3 the two leagues could have the same comeback rate.

The intangibles, though, paint a less rosy picture than the pure stats do, and it's here we pay particular attention to the last two 0-3 comeback kings, the Flyers and the Red Sox. For the Flyers, their comeback featured the simple luck of having one of their best players come back at the right moment right when a key contributor for the Bruins goes down. Granted, it’s easy to overplay the significance of a single player to a team and a lot of other intangibles went into play during the series (complacency vs. resilience, perhaps?), but the personnel changes had to change game plans. Simply put, it’s a confluence of events that isn’t very likely to happen again and that further reduces the likelihood of a 0-3 comeback occurring again. Furthermore, the Flyers were also lucky to have Michael Leighton come back from injury right when Brian Boucher sustained one and have Leighton perform above expectations. I don’t mean to take anything away from the Flyers because they were full marks for their comeback, but this team did get a lot of breaks teams down 0-3 aren’t likely to get.

The Red Sox, for their part, dealt with another intangible that other 0-3 teams may not get- in 2004 were playing their hated rivals the Yankees, meaning Boston had a “will to win” unparalleled throughout sports. Furthermore, this same Yankee team only a year before ended the Sox’s World Series hopes on an Aaron Boone walk-off home run in extra innings in Game 7 at that same point in the playoffs. Something tells me after getting beaten 19-8 in Game 3, the Red Sox weren’t going to allow the Yankees to beat them again. Boston eschewed the Yankees’ will to win in overcoming two straight tense contests in Games 4 and 5 (including a 9th-inning rally in Game 4) and smoked them in Games 6 and 7 en route to a dominating sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in that year’s World Series, ending the “Curse of the Bambino”. We can talk all we want about how, in the playoffs, you have to have a “will to win”, but none could ever compare to the will the Red Sox had in 2004. The only comparable feat would be if the Chicago Cubs found themselves in the same situation (which may be small solace to Cubs fans), because that would provide a similar inspiration to overcome such a hole. This isn’t to say that non-rivals without long droughts couldn’t come up with the intestinal fortitude to go on a comeback run (the 1975 Islanders come to mind), but it’s pretty hard to psyche yourself up if you’ve dug yourself a 0-3 hole, meaning a series against a rival or setting a significant team goal would make it more likely to draw the inspiration needed for a comeback.

So where does this all leave us? Well, it does show just how long the Flyers' odds were and how remarkable it was for them to achieve it. It also shows just how unpredictable sports are and how much of a fool’s game it is to anticipate everything, because lots of variables- many that can’t be seen- go into each victory. Yes we can discuss the numbers, but the numbers aren’t going to tell you how well a team performs on an upcoming night, who gets injured and who doesn’t and what the intensity level will be. Then we can bring up things like “resiliency” or some other kinds of intangibles, but that would ignore the tangibles each team possesses and ignores the fact other teams could possess those intangibles at a higher level than the 0-3 comebacker, only that they didn’t have the talent to pull through (or the talent not to get themselves into a 0-3 hole in the first place). Even in these playoffs, when the Flyers and Wings both went down 0-3, the pundits all believed the Flyers were done and the Wings would soar, citing the Sharks’ case of playoff yips and the Wings’ boundless playoff confidence. Instead, it was the Flyers who came back and the Wings bowed with a whimper. If that doesn’t show you how unpredictable a 0-3 comeback is, I don’t know what will.

In short, while I can’t give an exact date for the next 0-3 comeback, I can say, given everything involved, it’s safe to say one will occur within the next 20 years, if not sooner. With so many series going on, it’s bound to happen sooner rather than later just because the sheer number increases the likelihood, and, indeed, the number of years in between one has declined each time. The gap between the first and second ones was 33 years (1942 Leafs and the 1975 Islanders), while the gap between the second and third was 29 years (1975 Islanders and 2004 Red Sox) and third and fourth being a paltry six years (2004 Red Sox and 2010 Flyers). I don’t think the next one is going to occur quite as soon as six years because the numerical trends don’t suggest that, but I can’t ever say that for sure. As for what sport it will come in, that’s open for debate. Yeah, hockey has seen more 0-3 comebacks than the other sports, but I attribute that to dumb luck- there’s really nothing about any sport that prevents a 0-3 comeback- if a team can win four straight games in basketball and baseball, it can happen at any moment, even if they’re down 0-3 in the series. You might be able to say baseball’s propensity for allowing only the very best teams in the regular season in its playoffs makes 0-3 comebacks less likely in that sport but, again, if sweeps can occur in baseball so can a 0-3 comeback- besides, if the teams are so evenly matched, why wouldn’t one team be able to swing momentum back in their favour? The only explanation MLB’s playoffs gives are the lack of 0-3 series (since the teams are evenly matched in the first place) but that’s it. Having said that, I think we’re probably due for a NBA team to do it because it’s impossible for a sport to hold on forever but, again, who can tell for sure? All I know is that the Flyers have entered history, and can now say- win or lose in these playoffs- that they will be remembered.

After all, they now get to be included in this oft-repeated phrase:

“The only teams to come back from 3-0 down are the 1942 Maple Leafs, the 1975 Islanders and the 2010 Flyers.”

Maybe it’s not better than winning the Stanley Cup, but that’s a heck of a sentence to be in. Congrats Flyers- you deserve it.



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