The NHL playoffs kick off Wednesday. Here are some storylines to watch:
After being shut out of the playoffs in 2016, five Canadian teams reached the post-season — Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. That matches the five who made it in 2015 (Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver and Winnipeg). You need to go back to 2004 for the previous time there were that many in the playoffs.
The last Canadian team to win it all was Montreal in 1993. Five have reached the final since then, with Vancouver losing in 1994 and 2011, Calgary in 2004, Edmonton in 2006 and Ottawa in 2007. Between 1984 and 1993, Canadian clubs won eight of 10 Cups. The Canadiens are perhaps the best hope this year after placing first in the Atlantic Division.
Five-time Stanley Cup champion Edmonton is in the post-season for the first time since 2006, ending a league-high 11-year drought. It will be a first playoff experience for NHL scoring leader and 100-point man Connor McDavid as well as teammates like Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Also, Oilers coach Todd McLellan faces his old team San Jose in the first round.
Now we'll start to see who got the best of last summer's blockbuster trade of star defencemen between Montreal and Nashville when it counts. Shea Weber will anchor the Canadiens defence against the Rangers in what should be a tight series, while P.K. Subban tries to get the Predators over the hump against powerhouse Chicago.
The defending champion Pittsburg Penguins are without top defenceman Kris Letang, who is gone for the season with the neck injury. The slick rearguard played more than 28 minutes per game in last year's Cup run, but the Pens went 13-7-3 without him down the stretch. Columbus has never won a playoff series, but posted franchise highs of 50 wins and 108 points this season.
The Blackhawks have won three Cups in the last seven years and, after finishing first in the Western Conference, are among the favourites to take it again. The core of the team — goalie Corey Crawford, defencemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa (as well as coach Joel Quenneville) — have a shot at wining a fourth Cup together.
Perhaps the most compelling story of the season saw Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson take a leave from the team to be with his wife Nicholle as she underwent cancer treatments. He went 13-5-3 after returning to the team on Feb. 11 and will have many cheering for him in the first round against the Bruins. Job 1 will be stopping ornery 39-goal scorer Brad Marchant, who returns from a two-game suspension.
Few expected Toronto to make the playoffs in Year 2 of a rebuilding program, but rookies Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander were that good this season. It no doubt helped to have Canadian Olympic team and former Red Wings coach Mike Babcock running the bench. The task is all-but-impossible against first-overall Washington, but the Capitals have gone flat in the post-season before.
To reach the second round of the playoffs, Calgary will need to win at least once in Anaheim, which they have not done in 25 games over the last 11 seasons.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press