Although it's only been a week since the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs began, the landscape of this year's postseason could change dramatically Wednesday night.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks, arguably the favorites to win this year's Eastern and Western Conference titles, respectively, will instead be focused on staving off elimination when they take the ice tomorrow night.
Both clubs have fallen behind 3-0 in their best-of-seven series, and watching the Penguins and Canucks falter has once again displayed how unpredictable playoff hockey can be.
The fact that heavy favorites can be pushed to the brink so early in the postseason must be troubling to those in charge of marketing the sport for television consumption, but unforeseeable upsets are truly at the heart of what makes playoff hockey special.
Although the Penguins and Canucks will both need to post four straight wins to survive and advance, the clubs arrived at their current predicaments in very different ways.
Vancouver has not played well, but the top-seeded Canucks, like many favorites in the past, also have run into an extremely hot goaltender in Los Angeles Kings backstop Jonathan Quick. However, what is happening to the Penguins primarily seems to be an implosion of their own doing.
The Pittsburgh-Philadelphia matchup was correctly pegged by experts and fans alike as the series to watch in Round 1, but few people could have predicted the reason to tune in would be to witness the unraveling of the 2009 Stanley Cup champions.
With star scorers like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal on their side, the fourth-seeded Penguins were installed as 4-1 favorites to win the Cup by Las Vegas oddsmakers. That was just ahead of the Canucks and New York Rangers, who were the next-best favorites with 11-2 odds at winning it all.
However, instead of beginning a long march to the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup, Pittsburgh's defense and lack of discipline has the club one loss away from an early vacation.
Pittsburgh was the NHL's highest-scoring team during the regular season and has posted 12 goals through three games against the Flyers. That would seem to be more than enough offense to at least keep Pittsburgh in this series. That is, if the Pens showed any ability to slow down Philadelphia's potent offense.
Since falling behind 3-0 in the first period of Game 1, the Flyers have outscored the Penguins by a 20-9 margin. Philadelphia has posted eight goals in each of the last two meetings after taking the opener in overtime.
While it's true the club has put forth a pitiful defensive effort and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is not doing his team any favors in net, Pittsburgh's true undoing in this series is its lack of discipline. Since the start of the series, the Pens have seemed more concerned with delivering big hits against the rival Flyers than actually being focused on making it difficult for Philadelphia to score goals.
The Pens really lost control in Sunday's Game 3 matchup in Philadelphia. En route to losing an 8-4 decision, Pittsburgh seemed to become more involved in goading the Flyers into fights than actually winning the game. Philadelphia couldn't complain in the end, however, as it scored four times on seven chances with the power play to take the 3-0 series lead.
As a result of their antics on Sunday, the Pens may face an even stiffer challenge in staving off elimination in Game 4. Pittsburgh forward Craig Adams has already been suspended for one game for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of Game 3, while Neal and Arron Asham, who will both meet with NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan on Tuesday, also could be banned for Wednesday's encounter.
Unlike the Penguins, the Canucks may actually be gaining a key player for Wednesday's Game 4 in Los Angeles. Daniel Sedin, Vancouver's leading goal- scorer during the regular season, has joined the team in L.A. and could play tomorrow night. A concussion forced Sedin to sit out the last nine games of the regular season and the first three tests of this series. His potential participation in Game 4 could give Vancouver a fighting chance against Quick, who has stopped 111 of the 115 shots sent his way by the Canucks.
Although both clubs are currently in the same situation, the Canucks seem to be the polar opposite of Pittsburgh right now. While the Pens are getting too caught up in their emotions to be effective, Vancouver has seemed lifeless for much of its series with the Kings. Not that the Canucks have given up, but they do at least seem fatigued from last spring's run to the Cup Finals, which ended with a loss to Boston in a home Game 7.
Teams have fallen behind 3-0 in best-of-seven series 167 times in the history of the NHL playoffs and only three of those clubs were able to come back to win the series. Historically speaking, that leaves Pittsburgh and Vancouver with less than a 2-percent chance of making it to the next round.
Barring a miracle or two, it appears the hockey world will be looking to anoint new Cup favorites in Round 2.