Tonight, the San Jose Sharks will try to avoid becoming the third team since the NHL expanded in 1967 to blow a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series. Such leads have become rarer since the early 1980s, but teams are also worse at closing them out. From 1968 to 1983, 49 of 112 (44 percent) best-of-seven series saw a team take a 3-0 lead. Since, it’s happened just 103 times in 419 series (25 percent).
In a broad sense, the decline in 3-0 leads post-1983 coincides with two things: First is the disappearance of the Original-Six advantage. It took a lot longer than one might have thought for that to occur. It wasn’t until 1980-81 that the second six teams to join the NHL had a winning record against the Original Six in the regular season. For whatever reason, the expansion teams that entered the league in 1967 and afterwards took a very long time to compete on an equal footing with their older cousins. The other factor is the general (and still ongoing) trend towards competence in NHL management. Smart teams used to treat stupid terrible teams as slot machines that paid out absurdly well. Insert Gerry Desjardins, wait three years, draft Steve Shutt. Insert Bob Lorimer and Dave Cameron, wait two years, draft Pat LaFontaine. It happened repeatedly from expansion into the early 1980s.
Although 3-0 leads became more rare after 1983, they still generally meant that the team down 3-0 was going to be swiftly eliminated. From 1968 to 1983, 35 of 49 series (71 percent) in which a team went up 3-0 resulted in a sweep. From 1984 to 1999, that number fell just slightly to 36 of 52 (69 percent). Since the turn of the century, though, things have changed. From 2000 to present, teams leading 3-0 have swept the series just 49 percent of the time. And the number of 3-0 series getting to six games has risen dramatically: From 1968 to 1999, it was six out of 101 (six percent), since 2000, it’s 20 percent (10 out of 51).
Why has this happened? Parity. In the NHL, parity isn’t just a result of the collective bargaining agreement in 2005, the NHL’s entire history has been a journey towards a more competitive league. Over the years, the NHL has moved from players being owned for life to free agency at 27. The gap between the best and worst management has narrowed. The gap between the best and worst coaching has narrowed. And instead of 16 teams in a 21 team league making the playoffs, 16 teams in a 30-team league make it. The NHL doesn’t throw up the mismatches it once did or, at least, it does so a lot less frequently.
The gap in terms of regular-season goal difference between teams that go up 3-0 and teams that go down 3-0 has been trending downwards for a long time. This means that a team that was leading a series 3-0 in 1974 was probably a much, much better than the one that was trailing. Now? On average, the 3-0 leader is only slightly better.
If we know that teams that go up 3-0 now are probably not much better than the team they’re beating, we can infer that they’re probably fortunate to be up 3-0; they’ve caught some bounces. It’s not 1972 anymore, with the Bruins beating up on the Blues 23-5 through the first three games of the Cup semis before wrapping up the series with a 5-3 win. The gaps between playoff teams are, in general, not that large.
What does this mean for the Sharks? Well, if they lose tonight and put a capstone on their (somewhat unfair) reputation as playoff chokers, they can take some solace from the fact that blowing a 3-0 lead shouldn’t carry the stigma it once did. Admittedly, that’s not much. We see teams get closer to the brink than they used to. San Jose might join the 2010 Boston Bruins as the only teams to blow a 3-0 lead since 1975 but they’ll have company from someone else soon.