Is this the year Canada’s Stanley Cup drought ends?
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It’s been 30 years since a Canadian-based team won the Stanley Cup. But, with two of them finishing in the top six of the NHL’s overall standings, there’s a reasonable chance the drought ends this year — even, perhaps, with an all-Canadian final.
As the Stanley Cup playoffs open tonight with four games, including Edmonton hosting Los Angeles, here’s a look at the three Canadian clubs vying to hoist the best trophy in sports:
Can Connor McDavid take the Oilers all the way?
The world’s best player ran away with his third straight Art Ross Trophy (and fifth of his career) after racking up 153 points — the most in a season by anyone other than Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman. McDavid also took his goal-scoring to new heights this season, potting a league-high 64 to capture his first Rocket Richard Trophy. Now he’ll try to eliminate the only conceivable knock against him by leading his team to a championship.
Edmonton made inroads last year, advancing to the conference finals for the first time in the McDavid era before getting swept by eventual-champion Colorado. They’ve since blossomed into legit title contenders, posting the second-best record in the Western Conference and the sixth-best overall. They’re peaking at the right time too, closing the regular season with nine straight wins and an 18-2-1 record since March 1.
Fuelled by a lethal power play with the best success rate ever recorded (32.4 per cent), Edmonton scored the most goals in the league and had the NHL’s first trio of 100-point teammates in 27 years in McDavid, Art Ross runner-up Leon Draisaitl (128) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (104). They also seem to have found a reliable goalie in rookie Stuart Skinner, a godsend for a team plagued by defensive shortcomings throughout McDavid’s career.
The Oilers fell just two points short of overtaking Vegas for the Pacific Division title and the top seed in the West. As a result, they’re matched against the third-place team in the Pacific, Los Angeles. It’s a rematch of last year’s hard-fought first-round series, which the Oilers won in seven.
Game 1 is in Edmonton tonight at 10 p.m. ET. You can watch it on the CBC TV network, CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports app. Read a preview of the Western Conference playoffs here.
Will the Leafs finally advance?
Toronto had another excellent season, placing fourth overall with 111 points — just four off the franchise record set a year ago. Mitch Marner piled up a career-best 99 points, William Nylander set career highs in points (87) and goals (40) and Auston Matthews mustered 40 goals despite being bothered by injuries for much of the year.
But regular-season success no longer matters to a tortured fanbase that hasn’t seen a Stanley Cup win in 56 years or even a playoff series victory since the salary-cap era began in 2005-06. If Toronto doesn’t reach at least the second round, this could be the end for GM Kyle Dubas, coach Sheldon Keefe and others.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, they’ve drawn another brutal playoff path. First comes a rematch with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who beat Toronto in seven last year en route to their third straight Stanley Cup final. The Leafs are favoured this time, and the Bolts are looking a bit weathered these days, but the 2020 and ’21 champs clearly have a knack for elevating their game when it matters. If the Leafs make it past Tampa, their likely second-round opponent is Boston, which just set the NHL records for wins and points in a season and always seems to have Toronto’s number in the playoffs.
Game 1 of the Leafs-Lightning series is Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET in Toronto. Read a preview of the Eastern Conference playoffs here.
Can the Jets pull off an upset?
For a while this season, Winnipeg was one of the NHL’s most pleasant surprises. After doing virtually nothing to upgrade a roster that missed the playoffs last year, the Jets soared to a 34-19-1 record through Valentine’s Day. But there hasn’t been much to love since then. Winnipeg went 12-14-2 the rest of the way to end up with the final playoff spot in the West.
To get past top-seeded Vegas in the first round, the Jets will need big performances from the likes of star sniper Mark Scheifele (career-high 42 goals), underrated forward Kyle Connor (team-best 80 points) and Norris-calibre defenceman Josh Morrissey (76 points). And, of course, Winnipeg always has an ace in the hole with former Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck in net.
The Winnipeg-Vegas series opens Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. ET. Read more about the matchup here.