Five Canadian teams in NHL playoffs compared to none last year
No Battle of Alberta.
No Battle of Ontario.
No big deal.
At least it’s better than no Canadian teams.
That, of course, was the case just 12 months ago when the NHL playoffs kicked off with exactly zero Canadian franchises taking part.
This time around, there are five.
Welcome to the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, where the storylines — at least on this side of the border — revolve around the inclusion of Mike Babcock’s Maple Leafs, Carey Price’s Montreal Canadiens, Erik Karlsson’s Ottawa Senators, Johnny Gaudreau’s Calgary Flames and last, but certainly not least, Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers.
Admittedly there were hopes in the Great White North entering the regular season’s final day Sunday that the possibility of an Oilers-Flames and a Maple Leafs-Sens first-round matchup might come to fruition.
But when the Leafs dropped a 3-2 decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto bid adieu to dreams of facing the Sens and instead had to deal with the reality of meeting the Washington Capitals, the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy for finishing first overall in the NHL.
Several hours later, the Anaheim Ducks spoiled any chance of a Calgary-Edmonton showdown by beating the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 in overtime. By gaining at least one point, the Ducks ensured they’ll face off against the Flames, a team they’ve defeated 25 consecutive times in Anaheim dating back to Jan. 19, 2004 — the longest such streak in NHL history.
The Flames certainly will have their hands full.
The Oilers, meanwhile, will face a San Jose Sharks team that goes up against their former coach, Todd McLellan, who now is the Edmonton bench boss. Of more interest is watching the blossoming superstar McDavid showcase his talents on the NHL playoff stage for the first time.
The other two Western Conference matchups will feature St. Louis Blues coach Mike Yeo go up against his former team, the Minnesota Wild; and a showdown between The Windy City and Music City — the Chicago Blackhawks versus the Nashville Predators.
All in all, seven new teams will be in the competition from a year ago, including the five Canadian franchises plus the Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets. The seven participants from the 2016 playoffs who won’t be competing this time around are the Kings, Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and, of course, the Detroit Red Wings, whose impressive streak of 25 consecutive postseason appearances has now come to an end.
The odds recently put out by Westgate have the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals listed as co-favourites to win the Cup at 4-1. The Oilers (12-1), Canadiens (14-1), Flames (25-1), Maple Leafs (30-1) and Senators (40-1) round out the Canadian contingent.
The Capitals will start their quest for the Cup with an intriguing matchup against the Cinderella Maple Leafs in a tale of young versus old.
When 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews scored his 40th goal of the season Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he became the first rookie to reach that mark since Alex Ovechkin did it in 2006. Matthews, by the way, ended up scoring seven more times than Ovechkin, who still finished the season with a respectable total of 33 goals.
Now, these fresh-faced inexperienced Leafs — a team that many nights featured seven freshmen in their lineup — go up against a Capitals team that understands the window of opportunity to win a Cup is closing.
Come the summer, Kevin Shattenkirk, fellow defenceman Karl Alzner and wingers T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik will be eligible to become unrestricted free agents while Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly and blueliner Dmitri Orlov are pending RFAs. As such, the Caps roster will look much different next fall.
As for the Leafs, they squandered a great opportunity to revive the postseason edition of the Battle of Ontario by losing to the Jackets. As a result, the Senators will meet the Bruins, the team captained by former Ottawa defenceman Zdeno Chara.
Credit to incoming GM Pierre Dorion and coach Guy Boucher for bringing defence back to the Nation’s Capital, a key reason for the Sens success.
In Montreal, the matchup against the New York Rangers will bring back for fans unpleasant memories of Game 1 of the 2014 Eastern Conference final when Price was knocked out of the playoffs with a knee ailment when Chris Kreider skidded into him, blades up. Price is healthy this time around, which bodes well for Montreal.
The fourth Eastern Conference matchup features Crosby’s Pens going up against Sergei Bobrovsky’s Columbus Blue Jackets. The Penguins eliminated the Jackets in six games in their only previous playoff encounter back in 2014.