Top 10 biggest comebacks in NHL playoff history
Closing out a series is never easy, even for teams that lead it 3-0 or 3-1. Ranking the 10 greatest NHL playoff comebacks of all time.
Back in 1942, the Toronto Maple Leafs became the first NHL team to rebound from a 3-0 Stanley Cup playoff series deficit and prevail in Game 7. The Leafs did it in the Stanley Cup Final during a year when the league was short on star players due to World War II. Toronto remains the only team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 hole in the Cup Final.
Some 33 years would pass before another NHL team came back from 3-0 in the playoffs. That happened in the postseason’s second round. Two other teams have made the remarkable climb back from a 3-0 deficit – one in the first round and the other in the second. So, those 1941-42 Toronto Maple Leafs remain the only team from the NHL’s final four ever to rally from 3-0.
Coming back from 3-1 is another story. That has happened several times over the past century. It’s no easy feat, since a trailing team has to win three straight games to close out the series. It’s especially impressive when the lower-seeded team manages to do it, because those underdogs have to win Games 5 and 7 on the road. We saw that take place in this year’s first round, when the Florida Panthers stunned the Boston Bruins.
Has any NHL team comeback from 3-0 in playoffs?
Four NHL teams have come back from 3-0 playoff deficits in best-of-7 series over the league’s 105-year history. The first was the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1942. They were followed by the New York Islanders in 1975, the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, and the Los Angeles Kings in 2014. Of this group, only Toronto played its Game 7 at home. The other three teams managed to win Game 7 on the road, making the challenge even greater. Teams that trail a series 3-0 have an overall record of 4-197 over the course of NHL history. That’s a winning percentage of just under .020. In other words, a team that falls behind 3-0 in a series has only a 1-in-200 chance of winning that series.
Ranking the Top 10 Biggest Comebacks in NHL Playoff History
- Montreal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs -- 2021 North Division Semifinals Biggest deficit: Toronto led 3-1
Series Result: 4-3, Montreal
The NHL played an abbreviated, 56-game 2020-21 regular season, as North America remained in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the unique circumstances that season, teams were broken up into divisions that limited travel distances. All Canadian teams were placed in the one-time North Division, which produced some truly entertaining hockey and left Canadian fans wishing it could have become a permanent division.
The Toronto Maple Leafs won the North Division with 77 points. The Montreal Canadiens qualified for the fourth and final North playoff spot with 59 points. Despite the traditional rivalry between the teams, this appeared to be a mismatch even after Montreal surprised host Toronto with a 2-1 win in Game 1.
Roaring back from that loss, the Leafs won the next three games, outscoring the Habs by a combined 11-2 margin. Heading home for Game 5, Toronto had total control of the series – or so Leafs fans thought.
In Game 5, Montreal jumped out to a 3-0 lead, but Toronto rallied to force overtime at 3-3 with 8:06 left in regulation. The Habs, however, got the last laugh when Nick Suzuki scored only 59 seconds into the OT and extended the series to a Game 6 in Montreal.
Game 6 was another overtime thriller with no goals until the third period. Montreal scored twice in a 77-second span for a 2-0 lead, but Jason Spezza and T.J. Brodie pulled the Leafs even with late goals. Overtime wasn’t as short as in Game 5, lasting 15:15, but the result was the same after Jesperi Kotkaniemi beat Leafs goalie Jack Campbell to even the series.
Playing with house money at that point, the Canadiens had nothing to lose when they returned to Toronto for Game 7. Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher broke a scoreless tie at 3:02 of the second period, and Corey Perry scored on a power play to make it 2-0 just 12 minutes later. That was all Habs goaltender Carey Price needed, as he turned in an outstanding, 29-save performance in Montreal’s series-ending 3-1 win.
It was a great playoff start for the Habs, who made a dramatic run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Tampa Bay in five games.
- Montreal Canadiens vs. Boston Bruins -- 2004 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Biggest deficit: Boston led 3-1
Series Result: 4-3, Montreal
The 2003-04 Montreal Canadiens were among the last teams to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. They got in as the No. 7 seed and had to open the first round at Boston against a team that finished 11 points ahead of them in the Northeast Division.
In Game 1, the Bruins left no doubt as to which team was better, shutting out the Habs 3-0 at home behind goalie Andrew Raycroft’s 31 saves. Boston then stretched its series lead to 2-0 with a 2-1 overtime win that ended on Patrice Bergeron’s goal 86 seconds into OT.
As the series shifted the Montreal, it appeared unlikely that the Canadiens would come back, but they avoided the brink by winning Game 3 on the strength of two first-period goals by Alex Kovalev and a second-period goal from defenseman Andrei Markov. Leading 3-1 in the third, Montreal survived after an early Brian Rolston score and held on for a 3-2 win. Then, in Game 4, the Habs had a 3-2 lead late in the third period, but gave up a Mike Knuble goal with 31 seconds left, and the game went to overtime. It then went to double-OT, where Glen Murray’s unassisted goal at 9:27 gave the Bruins a 3-1 series lead.
All eyes were on Game 5 in Boston, where the Bruins were expected to win. Montreal players had a different idea. Canadiens goaltender Jose Theodore made a remarkable 43 saves, limiting Boston to just one goal in a 5-1 Montreal win that forced Game 6. The Habs led 1-0 after one period and 2-0 after two before breaking the game open in the third period.
Back in Montreal, the home team was comfortable riding its momentum to another rout. The Canadiens snapped a 1-1 tie with second-period goals from Saku Koivu and Yanic Perreault on their way to a 5-2 win that evened the series.
The upstart underdogs finished off Boston in Game 7 on the road as Theodore was again brilliant with 32 saves in a 2-0 shutout. Richard Zednik scored the series-winning goal at 10:52 of the third period and then added an empty-netter with eight seconds left.
Montreal’s magic would not last long, since the Canadiens got swept by eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay in the playoffs’ second round.
- Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames – 1994 Western Conference Quarterfinals
Biggest deficit: Calgary led 3-1
Series Result: 4-3, Vancouver
The Vancouver Canucks had a magical run to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost a heartbreaking Game 7 to the New York Rangers. Along the way, a Canucks team that finished seventh in the NHL’s Western Conference made believers out of the entire league.
It all started with a shocking comeback win over a team the Canucks weren’t expected to beat. During the regular season, the Calgary Flames finished 12 points ahead of Vancouver in winning the Pacific Division, which was the league’s weakest division at the time. When the two teams drew each other for a first-round playoff series, a Calgary win seemed inevitable.
This was to be a special year, however, and the Canucks made a huge statement by winning the series opener 5-0 on the road. Goaltender Kirk McLean made 31 saves for the shutout in a game his team took over with a three-goal second period.
Calgary earned a split of the first two games with a 7-5 home win in Game 2. The Flames got two first-period goals from defenseman Al MacInnis in jumping out to a 4-1 lead and never looked back. Joe Nieuwendyk also scored twice for Calgary.
With the momentum in their hands, the Flames took both Games 3 and 4 in Vancouver for a 3-1 series lead. Game 3 was scoreless until the third period. Calgary took a 1-0 lead, Vancouver tied it 1-1, and Calgary took control with two goals, including the eventual game-winner from Gary Roberts at 18:23 of the third period. Theo Fleury had two goals, including an empty-netter, in Calgary’s Game 3 win.
Game 4 was also tight, but the Flames came away with a 3-2 victory by rallying back from a 2-1 third-period deficit. Wes Walz tied the score just 44 seconds into the third, and Fleury’s tie-breaking goal at 3:38 stood up as the winner.
Calgary was going home for Game 5 with a chance to win the series – and the Flames came ever so close. The epic game in Calgary saw only two goals in regulation. Pavel Bure put the Canucks up 1-0 at 4:48 of the first period, and German Titov tied it for the Flames just over a minute later.
No more goals were over the game’s final 54 minutes, and the teams went to overtime, where Vancouver’s Geoff Courtnall saved the day with a goal at 7:15 that silenced Calgary’s fans. In Vancouver for Game 6, the Canucks took care of business in overtime again, winning 3-2 on a power-play goal by Trevor Linden with only 3:17 left in OT. The teams had traded goals up to that point.
The grand finale was even more dramatic – this time going to double-OT. Fleury got Game 7 off to a fast start for the home team, scoring 5:04 into the opening period. By the end of that period, Bure had tied it, and Courtnall had put Vancouver up 2-1. In the second period, Calgary regained its lead on goals by Ronnie Stern and Theo Fleury. The Flames were 20 minutes away from winning the series.
Vancouver’s Greg Adams was not about to let that happen. With only 3:37 remaining in regulation, Adams scored to force overtime. A scoreless first OT, set the stage for a tense second extra period that ended abruptly when Bure scored at the 2:20 mark. Vancouver had shocked Calgary again in a series the Canucks closed out with three straight overtime wins.
- Edmonton Oilers vs. Colorado Avalanche – 1998 Western Conference Quarterfinals
Biggest deficit: Colorado led 3-1
Series Result: 4-3, Edmonton
The 1997-98 Colorado Avalanche were only two years removed from their first Stanley Cup championship with the core of that Cup team intact. They finished the regular season atop the NHL’s weak Pacific Division – a full 15 points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers team they were set to meet in the opening round of the 1998 playoffs.
Perhaps they took the Oilers a little too lightly in Game 1 at home. Edmonton stunned the Avs by opening the series with a 3-2 win that saw the Oilers score three unanswered goals in the third period. The Avs had built their 2-0 lead on a pair of goals by Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg, but Edmonton came roaring back in the game’s final 8:58.
Edmonton’s Bill Guerin got the rally going with a power play goal, and Dean McAmmond tied the game 80 seconds later. Defenseman Boris Mironov then delivered the game-winner with 5:09 left.
Colorado had learned its lesson. The Avs came back to take Game 2 in a 5-2 rout, thanks to two more goals from Forsberg and 25 saves from Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy. Game 3 in Edmonton was much closer – going all the way to overtime.
Colorado had led 4-2 late in the third period of Game 3 before Edmonton extended the game on goals by Guerin and Kelly Buchberger. Unfazed, the Avs pulled out a 5-4 win when Joe Sakic scored at 15:25 of OT.
It was more Colorado dominance in Game 4, as the Avalanche snapped a 1-1 tie on Claude Lemieux’s goal at 10:59 of the third period and cruised to a 3-1 win behind 26 saves from Roy.
Here were the Avs, heading home for Game 5 with a 3-1 series lead, and they had no idea what was about to hit them.
In Game 5, the Oilers unveiled their secret weapon – goaltender Curtis Joseph. Famously nicknamed “Cujo,” Joseph had performed well in the first four games, but he was something else down the series’ stretch – allowing only one goal over the final 180 minutes of hockey.
Colorado’s Stephane Yelle scored what would prove to be the last goal against Joseph for a 1-0 lead at 16:20 of Game 5’s first period. The Avalanche would not score again in the series.
Three third-period Edmonton goals, including two by Mike Grier, sealed a 3-1 win for Joseph, who made 30 saves. That was only the beginning. In Game 6 at Edmonton, Joseph stopped 31 Avalanche shots, enabling his team to ride Drake Berehowsky’s early goal to a 2-0 win.
Joseph’s shutout streak was the big story going into Game 7 at Colorado, and the goalie made sure to preserve it by making another 31 saves in a 4-0 win. Janne Niinimaa’s goal at 4:22 of the first period was all the Oilers needed to complete the stunning comeback in which Joseph stopped 92 of Colorado’s last 93 shots (a .989 save percentage).
Unfortunately, Edmonton fell to Dallas in the playoffs’ second round, despite Joseph not allowing more than three goals in any of that series’ five games.
- Florida Panthers vs. Boston Bruins – 2023 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Biggest deficit: Boston led 3-1
Series Result: 4-3, Florida
We just lived through this series, but it’s one that people will be talking about for many years to come. Not only is it one of the greatest playoff comebacks of all time, it’s also, arguably, the greatest playoff upset of all time.
It’s an upset because Boston finished the season a staggering 43 points ahead of Florida, yet somehow the Panthers won. It’s a great comeback because, regardless of the regular season records, that’s what you call it when a team can win three straight games and close out a playoff series with a road victory in Game 7
A quick refresher on what went down here …
Boston won the opening game at home, but the Panthers came back with a 6-3 win in Game 2. The Bruins took a 2-1 lead with a 4-2 Game 3 win at Florida and then pushed the Cats to the brink by routing them 6-2 in Game 4.
The final three games of the series were epic, and the hero was Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Florida’s netminder stopped 44 of 47 shots in Game 5 at Boston, and Matthew Tkachuk broke a 3-3 tie at 6:05 of overtime to force Game 6.
Back in Florida, the Panthers scored four goals in the third period to secure a 7-5 victory that took the series to its limit. Tkachuk tied the game on a power play with 9:11 to go in the third period, and Eetu Luostarinen delivered the game-winner at 14:22.
Boston completed its meltdown in Game 7 at home, losing 4-3 in overtime after falling behind 2-0 just 74 seconds into the second period. The Panthers’ Carter Verhaeghe won the series with a goal at 8:35 of OT.
It was an all-time great comeback and, of course, a monumental upset. Florida continues to ride the momentum in this year’s playoffs, as the Panthers have reached the Eastern Conference Finals against Carolina.
- Montreal Canadiens vs. Washington Capitals – 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Biggest deficit: Washington led 3-1
Series Result: 4-3, Montreal
On paper, at least, this appeared to be over before it started. Instead, it ended up being a very embarrassing moment in Washington Capitals history.
With a roster that included Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green, the Capitals undoubtedly overlooked the pesky Canadiens, and they paid a tremendous price when Montreal suddenly turned this series around.
The Habs actually struck first, winning Game 1 in overtime at Montreal. Tomas Plekanec delivered the winner at 13:19 of OT.
Game 2 also went to overtime, but the Capitals survived 6-5 to tie the series 1-1. Backstrom needed only 31 seconds of OT to get the win. The Caps then routed the Canadiens 5-1 in Game 3 at Montreal and cruised to a 6-3 win in Game 4 after breaking a 2-2 tie in the third period. That was as good as it would get for Washington.
Montreal’s miracle man was goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who led the way in Games 5 through 7 while allowing just one goal per game. In Game 5, Halak made 37 saves for a 2-1 Montreal win. In Game 6 at the Bell Centre, he stopped an incredible 53 Capitals shots, enabling his team to ride two Mike Cammalleri goals to a 4-1 win that evened the series.
Halak delivered the clinching 2-1 win in Game 7, stopping 41 shots in Washington. The Canadiens got goals from Marc-Andre Bergeron and Dominic Moore in their jaw-dropping road victory.
The Habs eventually lost to Philadelphia 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
- Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings – 1942 Stanley Cup Final
Biggest deficit: Detroit led 3-0
Series Result: 4-3, Toronto
The NHL landscape felt quite different during the 1941-42 season. Canada, which supplied almost all of the NHL’s players, was fighting alongside the British in World War II, forcing many young men to join the military. The U.S. also entered the war during the early part of that season, although American players were not a factor at hockey’s highest level.
Perhaps this unique situation was what opened the door for the very first comeback from a 3-0 playoff deficit. The Toronto Maple Leafs would make history in 1942 after finishing second during the regular season, just three points behind the New York Rangers. It’s worth noting that this was final season before the NHL’s Original Six era began, because the league still had a seventh team, the old New York Americans, who ended up folding in 1942.
Toronto and the Rangers received byes into the Stanley Cup playoffs’ semifinals, where the Leafs took an early 2-0 lead and went on to win in six games. Their Cup Final opponent would be the fourth-place Detroit Red Wings, who had stunned Montreal and Boston in the first two playoff rounds.
Detroit appeared to be a team of destiny that year. The Wings won Game 1 over the Leafs 3-2 on a second-period goal by Don Grosso, who had a hand in all three goals In Game 2, Detroit scored a 4-2 win after going up 2-0 In the first period. A 5-2 Wings win in Game 3 at home pushed the Leafs to the brink.
The miracle comeback began on April 12, 1942, when the Maple Leafs avoided elimination by scoring twice in the third period to rally for a 4-3 win at Detroit. That opened the floodgates, as the Leafs routed the Wing 9-3 in Game 5 at Detroit. Don Metz scored a hat trick and added two assists for Toronto while playing on a line with his older brother, Nick, who had a goal and two assists.
Toronto goalie Turk Broda was the difference in Game 6 at Detroit, as he shut out the Red Wings 3-0 to even the series. Don Metz scored the eventual game winner 14 seconds into the middle period.
Hall of Famer Broda came through again with a 3-1 win in Game 7, but the Leafs actually trailed 1-0 heading into the third period. Sweeney Schriner pulled Toronto into a 1-1 tie with 12:14 remaining in the game, and Pete Langelle, playing in the final game of his short-lived NHL career, notched the winner two minutes later. Schriner added an insurance goal with 3:47 to go.
No other team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the Stanley Cup Final, and it would take 33 years before any NHL playoff series ended in such fashion. The Leafs’ feat was a major hockey story at the time – the biggest comeback in NHL playoff history. Unfortunately, people weren’t paying the normal amount of attention to sports because of the war, so Toronto’s achievement didn’t get its deserved recognition until years later when it became evident just how rare it was.
- Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks – 2014 Western Conference Quarterfinals
Biggest deficit: San Jose led 3-0
Series Result: 4-3, Los Angeles
The 2013-14 Los Angeles Kings won a somewhat improbable Stanley Cup championship after finishing only third in the NHL’s Pacific Division during the regular season. The Kings had a solid record at 46-28-8 and were only two years removed from their first Cup victory, but few would have considered them strong contenders to win in 2014.
Things looked really bleak for Los Angeles when the Kings fell into a 3-0 opening-round series hole against the San Jose Sharks. What happened next would set the stage for not only one of the greatest playoff comebacks in hockey history, but also an inspired run to the Cup itself.
San Jose got off to a strong start in Game 1 at home, rolling out to a 5-0 lead after two periods and holding on for a 6-3 win. Six different Sharks scored goals, and Antti Niemi made 31 saves in net.
Game 2 was an even more powerful display by the home team. After falling behind the Kings 2-0 in the opening period, the Sharks exploded for seven unanswered goals – three in the second period and four in the third for a 7-2 cakewalk. Perennial playoff star Joe Pavelski led the way with a goal and two assists.
Returning to L.A. did not help the Kings, who lost a nail-biter 4-3 in overtime. Game 3 was tied 2-2 heading into the third period, where Los Angeles quickly took the lead. However, San Jose’s Tomas Hertl tied the score midway through the third, and the game went to OT, where Patrick Marleau ended it at 6:20.
Game 4 was shaping up as the Kings’ last stand in a series they seemed sure to lose. Los Angeles refused to go down, however. The teams traded goals up to a 2-2 tie, which was broken by Justin Williams, who would go on to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ MVP, with 3:53 left in the middle period. Tyler Toffoli and Marian Gaborik, who had two goals, stretched L.A.’s lead to 5-2, and the Kings sailed on to a 6-3 win, thanks to 36 saves from goalie Jonathan Quick.
Back in San Jose for Game 5, Quick became the story. He stopped all 30 Sharks shots for a 3-0 victory, as the Kings got early goals from Toffoli, Anze Kopitar, and Jeff Carter. Now they had a chance to even the series at home, which they managed to do in Game 6, thanks to another big performance from their goalie
Williams and Kopitar each scored two goals, and Quick stopped 25 of 26 San Jose shots for a 4-1 win that the Kings broke open with three third-period goals. It was on to Game 7, where Los Angeles could become only the fourth NHL team to win a series it had trailed 3-0.
The Sharks were pretty much demoralized by this point, and even though they were coming home, the writing was on the wall. Los Angeles had come to dominate the series, and the Kings lowered the boom in Game 7. After a scoreless first period, the Sharks got some life when Matt Irwin scored for a 1-0 lead just 28 seconds into the second period. That would prove to be San Jose’s final goal of the series.
Drew Doughty responded with the tying goal at 4:57, and Kopitar gave the Kings the lead for good with the eventual series winner at 18:39. L.A.’s Toffoli, Dustin Brown, and Tanner Pearson added third-period goals to cap off a 5-1 rout. Quick was the difference, though, as he made 39 save for his fourth straight win.
No NHL team since the 2014 Kings has managed to come back from a 3-0 series deficit, and many more years might pass before it happens again.
- New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins – 1975 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals
Biggest deficit: Pittsburgh led 3-0
Series Result: 4-3, New York Islanders
NHL fans will find a detailed breakdown of this series in our Betway listing of the top 10 greatest NHL playoff series of all time. The Islanders’ remarkable comeback from a 3-0 deficit against Pittsburgh ranked No. 6 on that list, and it ranks four spots higher here.
As one of only four NHL teams that have ever rebounded from a 3-0 playoff series deficit, the 1974-75 Islanders squad is a fitting runner-up for the honor of having the greatest playoff comeback of all time. When the 3-0 rebound happened, it was far more stunning than the previous time in 1942, because 33 years had passed before the Islanders matched the Toronto Maple Leafs’ feat.
There were many heroes in this series, but none bigger than goaltender Glenn “Chico” Resch, who might have played the best hockey of his career in making this win happen for the Islanders. Resch entered the series with his team down 3-0 and went on to win the next four games. One can tell how effective Resch was just by looking at the scores of Games 4 through 7 – 3-1, 4-2, 4-1, and 1-0.
What made the Isles’ playoff run even more incredible was the fact that they also came back from a 3-0 deficit to even their next series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers at 3-3. Unfortunately, they could not make another miracle happen, falling to the Flyers 4-1 in Game 7
- Philadelphia Flyers vs. Boston Bruins – 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Biggest deficit: Boston led 3-0
Series Result: 4-3, Philadelphia
The greatest NHL playoff series comeback of all time also made it to the Betway top 10 all-time greatest playoff series list with a No. 8 ranking. You’ll find a detailed description of the series on that list. Before they began their comeback, the Flyers were staring into the abyss – just one overtime goal away from being swept at home. No team has ever come so close to losing a playoff series without actually losing it.
It seemed the Flyers were going to survive Game 4 at first, as Philadelphia led 4-3 with just 32 seconds remaining. However, a Mark Recchi goal pushed the home team into a do-or-die overtime moment. Simon Gagne literally saved Philadelphia’s season – and began the improbable comeback with his goal at 14:40 of OT
Boston still had the Flyers on the ropes until Philadelphia goaltender Brian Boucher got hurt, forcing Michael Leighton to step into the starting role during Game 5. Leighton was able to finish off Boucher’s shutout – a 4-0 win that forced Game 6. The unlikely hero then stopped 30 shots at home for a 2-1 win that evened the series.
The Flyers closed out the series with a 4-3 win on the road in Game 7 to complete their generational surge. No team had rebounded from 3-0 since the Islanders did it 35 years earlier – the longest gap between such comebacks in NHL playoff history.
Parameters of Rankings
The most important factor considered in compiling this list of the best NHL playoff comebacks was the depth of the playoff hole the winning team found itself in before mounting its comeback. The four teams that rebounded from 3-0 deficits were guaranteed the top four spots, and the next highest spots went to teams that made 3-1 series comebacks by managing to win a Game 7 on the road.
Bet on NHL Odds at Betway
Find season long NHL odds on the Betway sportsbook. You'll find all the latest puck lines, totals, moneylines and parlays. Missed tip off? No problem, Betway also offers live betting. All your NHL betting needs are covered at our online sportsbook.
Visit Betway’s NHL picks page for picks and predictions throughout the season.