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Ending Canada's Stanley Cup drought being tasked to Flames, Jets or Leafs

With the NHL regular season in the books, Canada’s hopes of ending a 26-year Stanley Cup drought now rest with Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto. Postmedia News Service

Three out of 16.

Honestly, we’re not happy about those odds.

It would have been better had Montreal also been able to make it in to the Stanley Cup playoffs. And don’t get us started on Edmonton. We originally had them picked for the post-season. That is, before the team fired its coach and then fired its GM and then plummeted to the bottom of the standings.

So, with the regular season in the books, Canada’s hopes of ending a 26-year Stanley Cup drought now rest with Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto.

That’s it. Three teams.

It’s an improvement over last year, when only Toronto and Winnipeg made it in. But it’s down from two years ago, when five of the seven Canadian teams qualified for the playoffs.

And yet, it’s not the quantity that matters. It’s the quality.

This year, there are no pretenders. Rather, all three teams are Stanley Cup contenders.
Calgary finished first in the Western Conference this season. Winnipeg won the Central Division. And though Toronto hasn’t looked like a contender lately, the Maple Leafs actually had the fourth-most regulation plus overtime wins in the NHL.
For those reasons, it’s entirely possible that a Canadian team ends up playing for the Cup this year. Don’t be surprised if there are two of them.

According to sportsbook BetOnline, the Flames have 8-to-1 odds of winning the Cup (only the Lightning, at 11-to-4, are better). The Jets have 10-to-1 odds, while the Leafs have 20-to-1 odds.

That’s hardly a long shot. In fact, it might be the best chance of seeing the Cup paraded north of the border since the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks lost to the Bruins in the 2011 final.

Since then, there have been close calls and heartache.

In 2014, Montreal’s championship hopes were dashed when Chris Kreider ran into Carey Price in Game 1 of the conference final, knocking the Hart Trophy winner out of the playoffs. Two years ago, Ottawa was a Game 7 overtime goal away reaching the final. And had Vegas not upset Winnipeg in last year’s conference final, the thinking was that the Jets had the size and skill to possibly defeat the Capitals for the Cup.

This year, hope has been replaced with expectation.

Making the playoffs was never in doubt for Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto. They didn’t scratch and claw their way to get here. No one had to scoreboard-watch down the stretch or get lucky just to win a wild-card berth. They are the real deal.
Maybe few expected the Flames to be this good when the team changed coaches and swapped out so many players in the summer. But if you weren’t a believer when the team was winning games in October, November and December, then you certainly are now.

Calgary is one of only two teams to have won 50 games this year. And though going back-and-forth between goaltenders is cause for some concern, the Flames more than make up for it with a rock solid defence and an offence led by four players ranked among the top 30 in league scoring.
The fact that the Flames finished first in the conference also means they have the easiest path to the final.

That isn’t the case with the Leafs, who will have to go through a Bruins team that had the third-best record in the NHL, just to get to the second round, where the Lightning could be waiting. Then again, Toronto is hardly considered an underdog.

After acquiring John Tavares in the summer, they instantly became the pre-season favourites to win the Cup. And while they have buckled under that pressure at times this season, they still head into the playoffs with a 47-goal scorer in Tavares, a 94-point producer in Mitch Marner, as well as a talented young roster that includes Auston Matthews, Norris Trophy candidate Morgan Rielly, William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen.

If the stars show up when it matters the most, and goaltender Frederik Andersen can return to his first-half form, there’s no reason why the Leafs can’t beat the Bruins and challenge the Lightning and whoever else comes their way.

And then there’s Winnipeg. For years, the thinking was it was only a matter of time before the Jets challenged for a Cup. They got close a year ago, before being stopped by the Golden Knights on the doorstep to the final. But this year, the roster is more experienced and might even be better.

Wheeler finished with a career-best 91 points, while Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine all hit the 30-goal mark. That being said, the Jets have dealt with injuries to their back end recently and haven’t played their best hockey in the second half of the season.

It could be that the team is looking ahead towards the playoffs. After all, the goal from the very start has been about avenging last year’s conference-final loss and winning a Cup. And they could do it.
That is, if the Flames or Leafs don’t beat them to it.

CALGARY FLAMES: 1st in Pacific Division

Why they could win the Cup: The Flames were one of two teams to win 50 games this season. They have four forwards who finished among the top 30 in scoring, including Johnny Gaudreau, who ranked eighth with 99 points. And it’s not like their No. 2-ranked offence is making up for their lack of defence. Led by Norris Trophy favourite Mark Giordano, who had a league-best plus-39 rating, the Flames allowed the fewest shots on net this season. If there’s a concern, it’s that the team had to rely on goalies David Rittich and Mike Smith at different parts of the season. Then again, the Penguins won back-to-back Cups with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury splitting the workload.

Why they might fall in the first round: If you are wondering who might be in net for Game 1, you’re not alone. Even head coach Bill Peters acknowledged that it’s basically a coin flip as to whether Rittich or Smith will start. Who knows? He might pull out that coin when deciding who gets the start in Game 2. While other teams in the NHL have relied on a tandem, Calgary’s situation is different. Neither Rittich nor Smith has played particularly well this year, with both posting a combined .903 save percentage. So far, it hasn’t been an issue because neither has struggled at the same time. Well, not yet.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: 3rd in Atlantic Division

Why they could win the Cup: On paper, there is little not to like about the Leafs’ lineup. John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews finished with more than a point per game, while defenceman Morgan Rielly (20 goals and 72 points) put his name out there for the Norris Trophy. Add it up and there’s a reason why Toronto was one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. When clicking, that offence can make up for any defensive deficiencies and potential carry the Leafs to a championship. That is, as long as goaltender Frederik Andersen stands on his head the way he was in the first-half of the season.

Why they might fall in the first round: The Leafs have known they will play the Bruins for a long, long time now. But that doesn’t mean Toronto necessarily has an answer for Boston, whose size, strength and experience has been too much to handle in previous playoff match-ups. Last year, Boston’s top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak didn’t just fill the net — combining for 106 goals, with all three topping 30 — but also silenced Matthews. If that happens again, Toronto could be looking at another long summer.

WINNIPEG JETS: 1st in Central Division

Why they could win the Cup: The team is big enough and skilled enough to be a handful for any opponent in the playoffs. And, after reaching the conference final a year ago, they now have the experience to go along with it. Winnipeg’s strength is on offence, an area that was further improved at the trade deadline with the addition of No. 2 centre Kevin Hayes. Looking like a larger version of Paul Stastny, Hayes has given even more depth to an offence that includes three 30-goal scorers and ranked amongst the top five in power-play success rate. If Mark Scheifele can replicate what he did in last year’s playoffs (14 goals in 17 games), the Jets should have no problems reaching the conference final again.

Why they might fall in the first round: The Jets played some of their worst hockey heading into the playoffs. And it begins with Patrik Laine. Though he has 30 goals this season, 18 of those came in November. He’s connected just once in March and April combined. To make matters potentially worse, defenceman Josh Morrissey’s health is in doubt, thus putting even more pressure on Connor Hellebuyck, who faced the highest number of shots of any goalie this year.

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