TORONTO – Canadians woke up Friday without a team in the playoffs and with the St. Louis Blues installed as Stanley Cup favourites.
Confusing times, indeed.
The good news for hockey fans north of the border is that a Canadian team begins play next Friday against Slovakia at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
Of course, B.C. fans will take it on the chin again. They will have to get up at 6 a.m. local time to catch the contest live from Helsinki.
It’s the first time since the 1995-96 season that no Canadian team has advanced past the first round of the NHL playoffs.
The surprising Senators have joined the disappointing Canucks on the playoff sidelines. The Canadiens, Leafs, Jets, Oilers and Flames have been observers for some time now.
With seven teams, Canada accounts for some 23 per cent of the 30-team league. So not making the final eight doesn’t seem to be statistically that bad.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise from a statistical standpoint, but it’s always a surprise from an interest standpoint in Canada,” said former sniper Mike Gartner, whose Maple Leafs lost to St. Louis in the first round of the 1995-96 playoffs.
Gartner says it comes down to missing being emotionally invested in the playoffs.
“Sometimes we forget that a lot of players that play on Canadian teams are not Canadian so we take it kind of personally,” he added. “And that’s OK to take it personally.
“But I still think it’s a shame, even just from an interest point of view, that we can’t cheer for somebody or … cheer against a Canadian team. It brings it to a higher interest level for Canadians.”
Canadians should be used to not winning the Cup by now. Justin Bieber, for one, wasn’t even born when Montreal became the last Canadian team to hoist the trophy at the end of the 1992-1993 season.
But in the country where hockey is king, watching Los Angeles, Nashville, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Phoenix, the Rangers, St. Louis and Washington slug it out for hockey supremacy in a Canadian-free second round is painful for some.
“The Canadian fans are so passionate about hockey to start,” said former coaching great Scotty Bowman. “The passion even seems to pick up in the playoffs.
Bowman, who won the Cup three times since 1995-96, notes that the playoff pain has been spread south of the border too.
In addition to the two Canadian teams, the first round claimed the victims of the last four Stanley Cup winners: Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Detroit.
He says it shows the parity of today’s league.
For Bowman, stingy defences have proven to be key so far, with the exception of the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia shootout series. And home ice continues to be less of an advantage that it once was.
Bowman was named coach of the year in 1995-96 when his Red Wings lost to the eventual Cup winner Colorado in the Western Conference final.
He’s not sure how he feels about today’s parity, whether the suspense it brings equals the excitement of contenders looking to take down one team with a target on its back.
He recalls fondly the days of superpowers such as the Islanders, Oilers and his Canadiens or Wings.
“It’s a different game completely,” he said.
According to bookmaker bodog.ca, the Blues are the 15-4 favourite to win the Cup. The Rangers and Philadelphia are next at 9-2, followed by Nashville (5-1), Los Angeles (13-2), New Jersey and Washington (9-1) and Phoenix (11-1).
Canada is off the board.
“Sens are gone and now nobody in Canada really cares about #NHL playoffs,” tweeted Vancouver’s Paul Walsh. “Kinda like 98 per cent of the US.”
“Bye bye Canada.. See ya next year. Thanks for playing #NHL,” tweeted Buffalo’s Andrew Kulyk.