US GamblersNewsEarly Bird Doesn’t Get The Worm: Why Stanley Cup Playoff Comebacks Are More Common Than You May Think

Early Bird Doesn’t Get The Worm: Why Stanley Cup Playoff Comebacks Are More Common Than You May Think

Image: IMAGO / NurPhoto

Comebacks in intense playoff series are more common than one might expect. While an early lead can instill confidence, it doesn’t always guarantee victory. This phenomenon is not merely a stroke of luck but often stems from strategic adjustments, resilience, and sheer determination exhibited by teams facing deficits.

Whether it’s a stunning reversal of fortune or a gritty fight from behind, these playoffs exemplify the captivating drama and unpredictability that define the sport. We break down the numbers to understand how likely it is for a comeback to occur, compiling NHL data from the 2017 season onwards.

Breaking Down the Numbers Season by Season

2017-2018 Season

The First Round ends with 7 losses to 1 win. The only exception is when the Capitals came back from a 0-2 deficit and ended up winning 4 in a row. In the second round, the Capitals show up again and come back from a deficit, contributing to a 2-2 record. In the third round, one team kept their lead, and the other lost it, with the Capitals eventually emerging victorious in the final, pulling off yet another comeback.

2018-2019 Season

The first round ends 5-3 to teams that won the first game, while the second round proceeds in a dominant 4-0 fashion. The third round has one comeback, making it 1-1 for maintaining leads and coming back, and the final ends with the Blues coming back from being down 0-1.

2019-2020 Season

The 2019-2020 season stands out as the least competitive season out of the ones we charted. Throughout rounds 1-3, there were only 2 comebacks out of 14 games played (14%), and while it ended with the Tampa Bay Lightning overcoming a deficit, the final was less competitive than expected, ending in a 4-2 scoreline.

2020-2021 Season

The 2020-2021 season stands out in a different way, as it got far more competitive and comeback-ridden the longer it went on. While the first round ended with only two out of eight of the advancing teams mounting a comeback against a 0-1 deficit, the second round had two out of four teams doing so. When entering the third round, both of the teams that won the first game ended up losing. The only asterisk on a competitive playoff run was the Montreal Canadiens being decimated 4-1 in non-competitive affairs by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

2021-2022 Season

Throughout the 2021-2022 playoffs, each stage of the playoffs ended with 50% of the teams winning despite having lost the first game. It should however be noted that the games for this year’s winner, the Colorado Avalanche, were not close, as they ended up winning each stage with the W/L ratio of 16-4 and crushing the final 4-2.

2022-2023 Season

The latest NHL playoff installment carried with it the most comebacks we’ve seen in recent memory, as six out of the eight teams advancing had lost the first game of the series. The tide quickly changed the deeper the playoff run went, however, as throughout the second round to the finals, only one team managed to replicate the feat and pull off a comeback. The eventual victors, the Vegas Golden Knights, only dropped one game in the final.

Overall Statistics

Over the course of this six-year span, in the first round teams have come back from losing game one 17 out of 48 times (35%), while teams have maintained a lead 31 out of 48 times (65%). The season with the most comebacks was the 2022-2023 season when six teams managed to claw back a deficit to end up the victor. The Washington Capitals set the most impressive example in 2018 when they came back 0-2 to win 4-2.

In the second round, teams have managed to come back 8 (33.3%) times while teams have maintained a lead and persevered 16 out of 24 times (66.6%). Roughly one-third of teams who make it to this stage will manage to pull out a comeback once they’ve lost the first game.

For the third round and final games, teams that win the first game have maintained the lead 10 times (62.5%) and lost it 6 times (37.5%). The finals maintain a 3-3 scoreline in this aspect, showing that taking home the first game has not been nearly as important as in the other games.

What the Data Can Tell Us About the Future

The statistics for teams coming back or not barely change during the different stages of the playoffs, indicating evenly matched teams throughout each stage and less likelihood of simple blowouts. There is a non-linearity in the trend data, showing randomness rather than a clear yearly direction, making the NHL unpredictable to gauge and bet on. Nonetheless, putting a bet on a team you believe in gives you roughly a 33% chance to be granted a comeback at any given time.

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