The Stanley Cup playoffs begin Wednesday night, which for most Americans augurs the start of hockey season. This year’s postseason features a quintet of Canadian teams aiming to end a drought that has lasted two dozen years, a pair of fresh faces that have created a buzz in the provinces and beyond, and the lone high-profile Russian in the nation’s capital who is not warily eyed by the Department of Justice—only by opposing defensemen.
In short, this NHL postseason has more promising storylines than Season 7 of Game of Thrones, and it too may end with someone from the north claiming lordship over all. Here are five of them:
1. Canada Deserves an Eh-Plus
Five of the seven Canadian clubs earned a playoff berth: the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs. That provides hope for our neighbors to the north, who invented hockey (and basketball, but that’s another tale) but have been seated in a postseason penalty box for nearly a quarter-century.
No Canadian team has hoisted the Stanley Cup for 24 years. Between 1927— the first year that only NHL teams competed for the Cup—and 1993, Canadian teams won the Cup 41 times. Since Montreal earned the Cup in 1993, Canadian sides have been blanked. For Canadians, who are rightly renowned for being good-natured, this is vexing.
If a Canadian franchise were to win the most esteemed trophy in sports, cheers would be heard from Halifax to the Klondike, but no city craves a championship more than Toronto. The Maple Leafs, one of the Original Six NHL franchises, are now 50 years removed from their last Stanley Cup. For a franchise that sits in Canada’s largest city and its English-speaking capital, not to mention one that won 13 Stanley Cups between 1927 and 1967, this would be tantamount to what the Chicago Cubs accomplished last autumn or Sergio Garcia did last Sunday.
2. Five of The Original Six Are In
The Detroit Red Wings failed to make the 16-team playoff field, ending the NHL’s longest active postseason streak at 25 years. However, the other five from the NHL’s Original Six (Toronto, Montreal, the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, and New York Rangers) all qualified.
This sextet of franchises all predate 1927 and, between 1942 and 1967, were the NHL’s only six teams. The Canadiens, who own the most Stanley Cup titles overall with 23, will face the Rangers, who have claimed the fewest of the Original Six with four, in the first round.
3. The Kids—and Sid The Kid—Are Alright
Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, a 20-year-old second-year center from Ontario, won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer this season. McDavid, who finished with 100 points on 30 goals and 70 assists, is the second-youngest Art Ross Trophy winner after his idol, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Crosby won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy this season by being the NHL’s top goal scorer, with 44.
Sid the Kid’s Penguins meet the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round, while McDavid’s Oiler face the San Jose Sharks.
McDavid is not the only player below the American drinking age—but above Canada’s legal purchase age of 19—who is creating a stir in the provinces. Toronto rookie Auston Matthews, who made an auspicious debut with a four-goal game last October, will lead the Maple Leafs into a first-round series against the NHL’s premier club, the Washington Capitals. Matthews is a shoo-in to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie, a distinction that neither Crosby nor McDavid achieved.
4. It’s Ovie’s Time
The Capitals have had the best regular-season record the past two years in large part because they’ve had the world’s best hockey player: Alexander Ovechkin. The 6-foot-3 Russian left-winger has led the NHL in scoring six times in the past decade, yet he has yet to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. Like the Maple Leafs, the Caps are overdue; like the Cleveland Cavaliers of 2016, the Caps have their league’s best player and are a franchise that has never hoisted a championship trophy. Cavs, Caps. Why not?
5. Sudden Death Overtime and Doc Emrick
On March 24, 1936, Red Wing rookie Modere Fernand “Mud” Bruneteau banged a loose puck into the net to snap a scoreless tie with the Canadiens and end the longest game in NHL history. The six-overtime marathon consumed more than 116 minutes of extra hockey.
In the current century, two playoff games have needed a fourth overtime and two more a fifth. There’s nothing else like it in sport: The action on the ice can turn in seconds while the stalemate can last for more than an hour of ice time. Even the casual sports fan who is more familiar with the exploits of the Hanson brothers than the Hulls will find the action riveting.
Another reason to tune in is NBC’s Mike “Doc” Emrick (he has a Ph.D. in communications). The septuagenarian sportscaster is outstanding as the voice of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and he has four sports Emmys to prove it. No other hockey broadcaster has one.
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