BROSSARD, Que. – Those impatient for the Stanley Cup to return to Canada will have just one team to root for in the NHL playoffs—the Montreal Canadiens.
For the first time since 1973, only one Canadian team has qualified for the NHL post-season.
The Canadiens (45-28-8) will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round, with only home ice advantage to be decided in the final regular-season games on the weekend.
Defenceman Josh Gorges said Friday he expects a lot of attention, but it will be no more pressure than what the team deals with every day of the season.
“There may be more eyes within Canada watching our games,” the Kelowna, B.C. native said. “In Canada, they have their loyalties to their local teams, but come playoff time, you’ve watched when Vancouver was in the Cup (final) a few years ago.
“Calgary, Edmonton, the same thing. The whole country rallies around because they want to see a Stanley Cup come back to Canada. But I don’t think it adds anything. There’s enough pressure just because of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
In 1973, the Canadiens were the lone Canadian playoff team and they won the Cup.
They are also the last Canadian team to win a Cup in 1993.
They are widely considered to be long shots to go more than a round or two this time, even though they’ve had an excellent season, have Canadian Olympic gold medallist Carey Price in goal, and got a major boost at the trade deadline in scoring winger Thomas Vanek.
Last season, four Canadian teams made the playoffs. Only two made it in the two seasons before that.
It seems odd that clubs with such enthusiastic fans and which sell out every game have so much trouble finishing in the top eight in their conferences. But Gorges said the added attention may be what makes it so difficult.
“It’s a little bit strange, but at the same time, it’s not easy playing in Canadian markets,” he said. “On a lot of teams in the States, there’s nothing more to it than going out and playing the game and getting the two points, whereas a lot of times in Canada, you can’t escape hockey.
“No matter where you go, there’s added, outside things that affect your performance. I think we’ve done a good job here of trying to find that balance, but that could, maybe, be a reason why some Canadian teams haven’t been in there.”
The Canadiens have reached the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons, missing in 2012. Their best season since 1993 was in 2010 when they reached the Eastern Conference final.
The Vancouver Canucks saw a run of five straight trips to the post-season end this season.
“Going into the season, you look at all the Canadian teams and you’d think most of them would be contending,” said Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher. “For us, being the only one, we’ll probably have some of Canada on our side.
“Some of them will still hate us, but it doesn’t change what we do and how we have to prepare.”
The second-year forward’s only playoff experience was in an all-Canadian series last spring, when Montreal was beaten in five games by the Ottawa Senators.
“There’s so much expectation for Canadian teams to compete because the fans are so passionate and they care so much,” said Gallagher, an Edmonton native. “Every fan base in Canada expects their team to be in the playoffs every year.
“I’m sure next year it will be different, but for us, it doesn’t change anything. We’re happy to be where we are and want to take advantage of it.”
While having only one team is rare, it’s an improvement on 1970, when no Canadian teams made it. Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins beat St. Louis in the final that year.
The Canadiens, who are 0-for-20 on the power play in their last seven games, worked mostly on special teams going into their regular season finale Saturday night at home against the New York Rangers.
The Canadiens hope a win coupled with a Tampa Bay loss will let them start the playoffs at home, but they don’t seem to be sweating it one way or the other.
“If it’s us or Tampa Bay that has home ice advantage, we don’t know,” said coach Michel Therrien. “But I can predict what the answers will be when we know on Sunday night: The team that has it will be really happy and the team that doesn’t will say it doesn’t matter.”
Forward Lars Eller didn’t skate and it likely to miss a third game with a flu.
Winger Brandon Prust is also out with an upper body injury. Therrien expects him to be ready for the playoffs but cautioned “we’re not quite sure yet.”
Forward Travis Moen, out eight games with a concussion, is also a question mark.
Winger Michael Blunden was recalled from AHL Hamilton.
The Canadiens announced that captain Brian Gionta edged out Gallagher for the Jacques Beauchamp Trophy as the team’s unsung hero in voting by the local media. The two-way right winger has played 80 games this season after missing a large part of the last two campaigns with biceps injuries.
“From the outside looking in, fans may not realize how important he is,” Gorges said of Gionta. “It’s not always about how many points you get, it’s what you do to help the team win games.”