Does Choking Truly Exist in the NHL?


It's an easy label to put on a team that's blown a series lead. The San Jose Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead to the LA Kings, and now that's the stigma they've earned. Just last week, the Washington Capitals blew their 3-1 lead over the New York Rangers, and now the choke tag has come out.

But when you look closer at these series — along with the way forcing a Game 7 down 3-0 or 3-1 seems to happen more and more since the 05-06 lockout — perhaps it's worth it to re-examine this stigma.

The San Jose Sharks earned their 3-0 lead by destroying the Kings in the first two games. These were blowouts of the worst kind, and it was clear the Kings didn't come prepared. However, the real Kings team emerged after that harsh wake-up call, and they marched straight through to a Stanley Cup. No other team took pushed them to an elimination game.

The Washington Capitals have a history of blowing 3-1 series leads over the course of their franchise. However, they lost to the team that won the Presidents' Trophy and has arguably the best goalie in the league — and certainly the most battle-tested in terms of succeeding in high-stakes situations. The series itself saw few goals and it took overtime to decide the winner, making it essentially a series of coin flips.

Parity, realignment, and the new playoff structure have changed the safety of series leads in the NHL. Prior to expansion in the 1990s, 3-0 series leads were often between top seeds and lower seeds — and when 3/4 of the league makes the playoffs, the discrepancy between best and worst made comebacks all the rarer. However, a mere 15 points separated the Rangers from the eighth-place Pittsburgh Penguins, and five of the eight Eastern playoff teams were only separated by three points.

Choker is still a label that could be applied when extreme situations occurred. However, the nature of matchups, particularly in the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference (that in itself is a surprise, since the Western Conference was so dominant for the past decade) meant that just about every series was a pick-em.

Why is this important? For fans, losing is frustrating but blowing a series lead can sometimes feel catastrophic for the fanbase. In a worst-case scenario, a GM like San Jose's Doug Wilson overreacts and winds up doing more damage rather than rationally assessing and moving forward. For Capitals fans, this year proved to be a building season, and while the result is disappointing, there are plenty of reasons to expect that they're a few smart moves away from being as good or better next year.

No one likes losing. No one likes blowing a series lead. But there's a big difference between a true choke and losing a coin-flip series. Once the emotions die down, a little perspective can put that disappointment into place — and look ahead at next season without overreacting.

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