TSN's Gino Reda tweeted an interesting question following the Flyers' improbable 4-3 comeback victory [Broad Street Hockey] over the Bruins [Jon Bois, SB Nation] tonight; was this the greatest comeback in NHL history? I'm tempted to say yes.
To start with, coming back from a 3-0 series deficit in a best-of-seven in any sport is incredibly rare. It's never been done in the NBA, it's been accomplished exactly once in Major League Baseball and it's happened three times now in hockey. The other two occasions were the Toronto Maple Leafs' comeback against Detroit in 1942 and the New York Islanders' comeback against Pittsburgh in 1975. Let's take a look at them and see how they stack up.
First, the Maple Leafs' comeback in 1942. This was in the Stanley Cup Finals, so they get bonus points for that, and it was also the first Cup Finals to go seven games, so that's worth even more points. That was a tremendous Maple Leafs' team, featuring Turk Broda, Bucko McDonald, Bob Goldham and Syl Apps Sr.. This was also one of the great old-time rivalries.
However, the series result wasn't really an upset; the Leafs were second in the league that year with a 27-18-3 record and 57 points, while Detroit was fifth (in a seven-team league) with a 19-25-4 record and 42 points. These were not the legendary Red Wings of Howe and Lindsay; they had good players like Sid Abel, Syd Howe (no relation to Gordie) and Mud Bruneteau, but they were more basement-dwellers than stars. Also, the Leafs had home-ice advantage and the Flyers did not. The series itself wasn't as dramatic as this one either; the Leafs lost the first three games 3-2, 4-2 and 5-2, but won the next four in convincing fashion (4-3, 9-3, 3-0, 3-1) thanks to some inspired lineup changes [Joe Pelletier, Greatest Hockey Legends]. That's still an incredible feat, but it doesn't quite have the flair of Philly's 5-4 (overtime), 4-0, 2-1 and 4-3 wins, with the last one coming after falling behind on the road. This is close, but I don't think it edges Philly - Boston.
How about those 1975 New York Islanders? Well, they were a good team and they get bonus points for making the playoffs for the first time that year. They featured plenty of notable players like Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom, Billy Smith, Denis Potvin and Chico Resch, but they didn't yet have Bossy or Trottier.
The Islanders' win over Pittsburgh was a slight upset (an eight seed beating a six), but the Penguins only put up one more point in the regular season, and that wasn't a very good Penguins team (although, oddly enough, it had Syl Apps Jr.!). Their leading point-getter was Ron Schock, who, funnily enough, said that Pittsburgh was one of the two places he'd least like to go and was traded there two days later. New York got that one done on the road, which improves their qualifications, but they went on to lose to Philadelphia in the next round. Also, the comeback in Game Seven wasn't there; the Islanders won their last four 3-1, 4-2, 4-1 and 1-0. This is an impressive effort as well, but it also falls short.
Tonight's game was just all-around amazing. Philadelphia looked completely out of it at first, surrendering three goals in the first 15 minutes. They battled back, though. Michael Leighton closed up shop the rest of the way after looking awful early, making 22 saves to keep the Flyers in it, and he got some help from his defence. Even more importantly, though, their offence came through; they created next to nothing early on, but James van Riemsdyk knocked in a somewhat fluky goal before the first intermission, Scott Hartnell stepped up to add one in the second period and Daniel Briere tied the game near the midway point. Then, in perfect fashion, Boston channeled former Bruins' coach Don Cherry [The Gazette] and got caught with too many men on the ice, something that's been a trend lately [Darren Dreger, TSN.ca] in these playoffs (and also across sports [myself, Grey Cup 2009]!). Of course Simon Gagne scored on the power play, as that was too perfect not to happen. This one had drama in the playoff run thanks to all the Flyers' injuries, the series thanks to close games and the Bruins being favoured (and predicted to win by just about everyone, including myself), and the final game itself thanks to Boston's early lead. To me, that makes it the best NHL comeback of all time.
If we're going for comebacks across sports though, I'd have to give the edge to the 2004 Red Sox comeback against the Yankees. That was too perfect given the intense rivalry between the teams, the Curse of the Bambino and Boston's long history of playoff futility. This can't quite match that in my mind, but I'm quite willing to call it the greatest comeback in NHL history, and perhaps also the best real-life opportunity to use this: