Ending the Drought: A Canadian Cup Champ (East)
The Cupless streak for Canadian franchises has effected them all in individual fashions. However, as a general rule it has affected the East moreso than the West. Yesterday I looked at the West’s chances to end the drought, and today I look at the teams in the East.
Every Western Canadian team has made the Stanley Cup final at least once in the past twenty years. The Eastern Conference has only seen one team, the Ottawa Senators in 2007, make a cup final in that time frame. Their first season coincided with the start of the drought. The Montreal Canadiens, the last victor, have only reached the Conference final once since then on the back of an astounding goaltending effort from Jaroslav Halak. Since Patrick Roy departed the team has never been able to recover that glory. In fact Montreal may be the team who has suffered the most since 1993.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have not faired much better. 1993 also represented a great year for their franchise. The team made the Conference finals before losing to the Los Angeles Kings. They have done so three more times since 1993, but almost half of those years they also did not qualify for the playoffs. Seven of the nine DNQs have come in the past seven seasons. The newest Canadian team, The Winnipeg Jets, are in their last season in the Eastern Conference and their second since inception, or rebirth whichever you prefer. The Jets have done plenty of positive but have had limited time and having to start with the leftovers from the Thrashers organization has hardly helped them produce immediate cup contending returns.
But could the course be reversed this season? All four of the Eastern Canadian teams currently reside in playoff positions. Should their positions hold Canadian teams have a pretty strong statistical chance of going far. Most preseason predictions had one Canadian team, Ottawa, at very best making the playoff. So which of them are for real and have a legitimate cup hope?
One could say that the Montreal Canadiens have been the biggest surprise among Eastern Canadian teams but that may not be true strictly speaking. All of the Eastern Conference Canadian teams have surprised in one way or another. Les Habitants, however, have climbed the farthest of any. They currently sit in 2nd in the East after last season in which they finished at the very bottom of the conference. One thing that is certain is that even the most optimistic Canadiens fans and journalists did not predict the season to go this well. At this point only a collapse of epic proportions could eliminate the Canadiens from a playoff position.
That collapse will not come. The team has continued to prove with almost every test they have been given that they are here for real. They are also currently an impressive 13 points into a playoff position. The differences from last season have been black and white. Thomas Plekanec has been the forward MVP for the club, playing incredibly well at both ends. Max Pacioretty has picked up his game after a rough start and has once again become the teams best goal scoring forward. Brendan Gallagher has put himself in the conversation for the Calder Trophy, PK Subban the Norris. Brandon Prust has been the heart and soul of the team. Carey Price has been his usual self. The list of contributors continues. The Canadiens biggest strength this season has been their depth, and the fact that those contributions have come from every line, and every player in a true team concept.
The big question for Montreal at this point has become not whether they will make the playoffs but how they will do once they arrive. It seems to be general consensus among media members that the Canadiens are not built for the playoffs . Their style and players just are not compatible with the rigors of a playoff schedule where everything steps up a couple of notches. But completely counting them out is ridiculous and short sighted. To begin with, the Canadiens have the best goaltender of any Canadian team. Carey Price has shown that he has the ability to steal games, and come playoff time, quality goaltending is one asset that can never be understated.
Not to mention GM Marc Bergevin has been subtly acquiring playoff depth for the Canadiens. It started in the off-season when he added depth to the Canadiens defence in Francis Boullion before doing the same with his forward group in signing Colby Armstrong. Brandon Prust remains the biggest piece of the puzzle, a player who will help exponentially in a playoff push. The project continued during this season. A surprising trade saw Montreal acquire Micheal Ryder, a proven playoff performer. In fact it was Ryder who nearly single-handedly eliminated the Canadiens the last time they made the playoffs in 2011 en route to Boston’s Stanley Cup Championship. Add Jeff Halpern, a fourth line centre with good face off skills, and plenty of experience and you have some nice organizational depth heading into the stretch run. A return to health for Rene Bourque and Raphael Diaz would also add to the Canadiens’ cause.
There is also the Montreal factor. The city literally stops when the Canadiens are in the playoffs, it may be the most intimidating playoff atmosphere in the league. This year they will have home ice advantage for most of the campaign provided they hold their position. All of these contribute to Montreal being a dangerous playoff opponent, more than anyone will be willing to give them credit. As for how far they go that could depend on the opponent they face. Montreal has not matched up well against certain teams this season and that could hurt them in the playoffs. But they will make a run, that can be counted on. The Conference Finals are not a massive stretch. And who knows, Montreal is the last Canadian Cup winner and there is always the possibility that they could do it again. Last time nobody saw it coming.
Looking at the standings does not tell you the whole story for the Winnipeg Jets, currently third in the Eastern Conference. The Jets have benefited from NHL playoff seedings and the fact that a division leader is always placed in the top 3 of the conference. The Jets have taken advantage of a weak Southeast Division, and if it wasn’t for this, they would be further down the standings and far less likely to make the playoffs. As was nearly the case for the Florida Panthers last year the Jets may need to win the division in order to make the playoffs. The benefit of the Southeast strongly on their side, the question becomes can Winnipeg take advantage? They are going to be in tough, that is for certain.
The Jets have been able to stay afloat this season due to a cast of minor contributors who have banded together to give the team a playoff hope. Ondrej Pavelec has been the hero for the team, making good on the surprising longterm deal the team recently singed him to. He has made several highlight reel saves and tons of others to kickstart his team’s recent success. As always Dustin Byfuglien stands out at the back end, maintaining a positive plus/minus rating and adding 20 points to the fold. Blake Wheeler, Tobias Enstrom, Bryan Little and Evander Kane have all also contributed in a positive fashion.
However, it has been captain Andrew Ladd who has been the biggest contributor other then Pavelec. Ladd is playing like one of the NHL’s elite, currently sitting fourteenth in league scoring. PPG wise he is on pace for his best season yet, and his full contributions are not fully measured by his statistics. Ladd’s continued high level of play, along with Pavelec’s of course, are key to the Jets playoff aspirations. But sadly, those aspirations may not yet be realised. The Jets have hope for the future, but the present hasn’t turned out so well. They went on a little run recently which put them in a playoff spot. However I predict that it will not last, as Carolina and Washington will challenge them down the stretch for the division lead. I predict that the Jets will come close but ultimately they are not yet ready, however the future is bright.
As mentioned above, the word “surprise” ultimately describes the seasons of every Eastern Conference Canadian team. Ordinarily the Canadiens bottom to top reversal would be the leading story. But if you think that then you have not yet met the Ottawa Senators, the team providing the most impressive story of all. The Jets success has been largely attributed to team play but it pales in comparison to that of the Senators. Starting before the season with an injury to Jared Cowen, intensifying with Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson going down, growing with Milan Michalek and Craig Anderson also being hurt; and then ending, well, certainly not yet. The Senators injured reserve just continues to grow and grow. Before the team’s health started to go downhill the team was an Eastern Conference contender. Somehow they have managed to not fall far from that lofty position despite all the injuries.
Composed of a roster that seems to basically be their AHL affiliate the Senators have managed to build a team that just continues to win, no matter who is on the game sheet. Even when goaltender Craig Anderson, maybe their biggest injury, went down Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop stepped in expertly. With every injury a new and unproven player steps in to confidently fill their shoes. On paper, the team looks pitiful, perhaps the worst in the league. The leading Sens point scorer has 22, less then half of Sidney Crosby’s output this season. But the Senators have managed to keep games low scoring due to their team defensive play and stellar goaltending.
If asked for an MVP of this year for the Senators it would be difficult as everyone who even plays close to that level ultimately suffers some freak injury. But it may be the resurgence of Sergei Gonchar that has been the most impressive performance by a healthy Senator this season. He currently leads the team in scoring with 22 points and has largely resembled the man known as one of the best in the league when he was a Pittsburgh Penguin. He has not since joining the Senators. Furthermore, while his stats may not directly indicate it, this all has to tie to Daniel Alfredsson in one way or another. His leadership is most likely a major cause in this entire saga.
Like the Canadiens, the question for the Senators is starting to become now if they make they playoffs but how they will fare. If the season is any indicator nobody will be particularly interested in drawing the boys from Ottawa in the first round, or any for that matter. The resilience they have shown throughout the season will most likely translate into playoff success, especially considering every game is almost like a playoff one for them at the moment. The injured players will return, most of them anyway, and the injection of talent can only help the already battle hardened team. The Canadiens may be Eastern Canada’s best Cup hope, but the Senators are not far behind. Daniel Alfredsson’s decision to return for one final year may prove ingenious yet.
The team currently ranked the lowest of all the Eastern Canadian teams is the Toronto Maple Leafs. This is thanks to the fact that the Southeast division is the weakest in hockey but also a position the Leafs are fully familiar with. However this year is different, late in the season the Leafs are sitting comfortably in the playoffs. After seven years of pure pain for the Maple Leaf fanbase this could finally be the end of their streak. The Leafs could make the playoffs and at long last stop their run as laughing stock of the NHL. But there are still plenty of skeptics. The way Toronto has dealt with the past number of seasons certainly doesn’t brew optimism.
Why is this year different from the any of the crashed campaigns from the past? It may not be, but there are certainly signs of optimism. They say one game can often swing the balance of the season, that game may have taken place just recently for the Maple Leafs. They had not beaten the Boston Bruins in almost two calendar years prior to an impressive 3-2 win on Saturday. The game felt like a playoff game maybe more than anything the Leafs have competed in since before the lockout and Toronto displayed their stripes very well. The confidence gained from this game could well propel them all the way into a first round birth.
The problems remain the same for Toronto, however, namely the goaltending. Neither Scrivens nor Riemer have demonstrated that they are NHL level starters. The former more then the later. This will certainly be the biggest variable for the team as they chase playoff contention. Both of these goaltenders have the tendency to give up games far more then they do to steal them. Toronto will need a couple well placed stolen games down the stretch if they are to make it. But the team looks good in other areas.
The defensive corps is once again not particularly strong, but they have found a way to be good enough. The recent call up of Jake Gardiner is a major positive, he will bolster the lineup exponentially down the stretch. As for the forwards, they have been the best news for Toronto this season and the main reason why this team is different from its predecessors. The majority of this growth has come from the bottom six. The fourth line of Jay McClement, Colton Orr and Frazer McClaren has been a massive boost for the Leafs this season. As has Leo Komarov. Both Kessel and Van Riemsdyk have been a little underwhelming, but both have contributed.
One name has obviously been omitted from that list and that is because he has been a class above all the rest and the catalyst behind the Leafs recent success. That would be Nazem Kadri, the youngster who has finally found his footing in the NHL. His organisational abuse has been well documented but that is all behind him now. He leads the team in scoring with 35 points and has been consistently their best player throughout the season. Along the way he has demonstrated to all his talents that should make him a threat for years to come, and a sign of hope on the horizon for the Leafs.
But what about the present? The Maple Leaf fan base has been told far too much about hope in the future and is in season for success now. A taste of it will finally come. The Maple Leafs are a clearly improved side, one who have managed to slow their annual downward spiral and may be on the upwards again. Either way they only need to play about .500 hockey to make the dance at this point. With the current roster they are sporting it is very difficult to see them not doing just that. Toronto ends their horrific streak. But I predict that they get no farther then the first round.
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