The NHL's slogan for the Stanley Cup playoffs is, History Will Be Made, a maxim that has never been more true than during this year's first round, which saw history made twice in just the last week. On Tuesday in L.A., the Sharks roared back from a 4--0 second-period deficit to tie the Kings at 5--5 and force overtime. San Jose won the game and took a 2--1 series lead when winger Devin Setoguchi's wrister beat goalie Jonathan Quick early in the extra period. The next night the Capitals took a 3--1 series lead over the Rangers by erasing New York's 3--0 third-period advantage and pulling out a 4--3 overtime win. The Flyers nearly matched that performance on Friday night, roaring back to tie the Sabres after trailing 3--0, only to lose 4--3 in overtime. The victories by San Jose and Washington tied for the second- and third-largest playoff comebacks ever.
What in the name of Lazarus is going on here? For an answer, hark back to the dark days of 2004--05, the NHL's season that wasn't, and say a prayer of thanks for the lockout. By getting rid of the hooking and holding that clogged the game so severely, the league has produced a thrilling playoff product—one in which teams apparently need no longer be daunted by a three- or four-goal deficit. The last prelockout Stanley Cup finals, the seven-game series between the Lightning and the Flames, included not a single lead change. By contrast, last year's matchup between the Blackhawks and Philadelphia yielded three in Game 1 alone. Has there ever been a happier by-product of a catastrophic work stoppage?
"Holding a lead now isn't like it used to be, for sure," says Kings forward Ryan Smyth, a 16-year veteran. "Obviously what [the league] wanted [coming out of the lockout] was more scoring, and the game has sure opened up."
These playoffs are the culmination of an overall uptick in scoring, which grows more pronounced in the third period, when teams press harder and rush the net more fiercely. In the six seasons since the lockout, the league has averaged 200 more third-period goals than in the four seasons before.
Not every comeback this postseason has been seismic, but the sheer number of them shows that teams can no longer simply lock down and win. On Thursday in Montreal, the Bruins overcame three deficits—one of two goals—to eventually pull out a 5--4 overtime victory to even their series with the Canadiens at 2--2. The Flyers also rallied from 2--0 down to beat the Sabres 5--4 in OT on Sunday and even that series at 3--3.
"The only way to really protect a lead is to go after the other team and have the puck," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson says. "To defend, you have to work hard. You have to establish body position. You can't cheat.
"It's tough to slow the game down. And that's not all bad."
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LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS (SHARKS)
SHARK SANDWICH Setoguchi (16) was swarmed by teammates after capping off San Jose's historic rally to beat the Kings in Game 3.