Welcome back, Canada. We missed you.
None of the seven NHL franchises based in Canada qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, the first postseason blanking of the Great White North since 1970.
Of course, Canada was well represented among the nationalities of players who competed for Lord Stanley’s trophy last spring, but it just wasn’t the same without a Canadian team for fans to rally behind — or unite against. It wasn’t as much fun without seeing an entire city becoming consumed day and night by pure hockey passion as only Canadian cities can be.
The playoff picture has changed dramatically this season and for the better, because it includes five Canadian teams.
Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto qualified in the East and Edmonton and Calgary crashed the party in the West, leaving out only the Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks responded to that on Monday by firing coach Willie Desjardins.
The five Canadian postseason contenders will bring fresh faces and intriguing story lines, and they’ll share the goal of becoming the first Canada-based team to bring the Cup home since the Montreal Canadiens defeated Wayne Gretzky and the Kings in 1993 with the help of a certain illegally curved stick owned by a certain defenseman whose initials were Marty McSorley. (Sorry, Kings fans.)
Most of the focus from Canada’s perspective will be on the speedy and often dazzling Edmonton Oilers, who last made a postseason appearance in 2006. For perspective, consider this: center Connor McDavid, the Oilers’ captain and the NHL’s scoring champion this season with 100 points, was a few months past his ninth birthday the last time the Oilers qualified for the playoffs, when they lost a seven-game Cup Final to the Carolina Hurricanes.
But are the Oilers prepared for the ups and downs of a two-month playoff quest? Was it wise to play goaltender Cam Talbot in 73 regular-season games and for 4,294 minutes — both tops in the NHL — and risk tiring him before he faces the grind of potentially long series played in warm arenas? Their performance in the first round against San Jose, a veteran-driven team, will give a good indication of the young Oilers’ maturity. They might need the experience of playing a few rounds and losing before they can win it all. But that isn’t a long way off.
Any time the Maple Leafs make the playoffs it’s a major story because Toronto is The Center of the Hockey Universe and the Leafs haven’t made it since the 2012-13 season. Coach Mike Babcock has gotten backing for the Jack Adams award as coach of the year, but there’s little question that rookie-of-the-year honors should go to 19-year-old Auston Matthews, who scored 40 goals in a league where scoring remains at a premium. Mitch Marner, a less-heralded rookie, chipped in with an impressive 19 goals and 61 points, the first big fruits of the Maple Leafs’ decades-long rebuilding. They haven’t won the Cup since 1967 and won’t end that drought this season, but they’re heading in the right direction.
Montreal, which missed the playoffs last season after goaltender Carey Price sustained a knee injury, has high hopes with Price back in top form. He has responded well to coach Claude Julien, who replaced Michel Therrien on Feb. 14. The whole team has responded, playing a tighter defensive game that should be successful in the playoffs.
There will be plenty of interesting matchups south of the border, too.
The current division-based playoff format harshly dictates that one of the top four teams during the regular season will be eliminated in the first round. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who ranked second overall and second in the Metropolitan Division with 111 points, will face the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were third in the Metropolitan and ranked fourth overall with 109 points.
The matchup between Montreal and the New York Rangers also features two teams that topped 100 points, with Montreal having compiled 103 and the Rangers 102, so that means an early exit for another powerful regular-season team.
But all of those point totals have been wiped out. New legends will be born during these playoffs — the last to involve the Original 30 teams — and some of those legends will be born in the barns of Canada’s five postseason contenders.
Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles TimesCanada Ice Hockey Edmonton Oilers NHL Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup Playoffs Carey Price