Saturday, March 31, 2018

Saturday storylines: The dream of the all-Canadian final

Welcome to the penultimate Saturday of the regular season. We’ve got a full day ahead of us, with a dozen games in total. One of those games even features 100 per cent of an entire country’s playoff teams, so let’s start there.

HNIC Game of the Night: Jets at Maple Leafs

Yes, I know, even mentioning the possibility of any game being a Stanley Cup Final preview is a reach. It’s almost a clich├ęd way to treat a late-season game between two decent teams from opposing conferences. And we’re almost always wrong, because in the parity era the Cup matchups often end up feeling nearly random, so we’ll inevitably get to June and be presented with a pairing that nobody’s even thinking about right now.

But still… just imagine.

The Leafs and Jets will be Canada’s only two playoff teams this year, which feels like a letdown after last year’s crowded field of five. But while the nation will head into the post-season low on quantity, the quality factor may be better than it’s been in years. When was the last time there were two Canadian teams that ranked as genuine contenders, and maybe even borderline favourites? Based on points percentage, the Leafs and Jets are shaping up to be the best Canadian one-two combo of the cap era; only the Senators and Canucks in 2007 come all that close.

So, futile as it may be, we can be forgiven for looking ahead and hoping. Because, man, a Leafs-Jets final would be something else. Both teams are young and stacked with offensive firepower. Both cities have been waiting years for any kind of a playoff run. Mix in the Patrik LaineAuston Matthews debate and Paul Maurice coming back to haunt the team that fired him, and the stories write themselves.

But that wouldn’t even be the main attraction. This is the time of year when we inevitably start hearing about ‘Canada’s Team,’ and whether the country’s fans should unite behind a common cause. It’s almost always nonsense, because Canadian fans don’t think that way. But as we’ve argued before, this year’s Jets may be the only team that could actually pull it off. Winnipeg fans have had so little to cheer about over the years that the rest of the country hasn’t built up any resentment yet. Mix in how likeable the team is and the whole ‘lost our franchise for 15 years’ thing, and if the entire nation was ever going to come together to cheer a team on, this might be this one.

And, of course, it wouldn’t hurt that they’d be playing Toronto. This year’s Maple Leafs are all sorts of fun to watch, and you could list a dozen reasons why Canadian fans should get behind them too. But they won’t. They never will. That’s just how it works in a country where it seems like half the fans root for the Leafs, and the other half root for whoever just beat the Leafs. Put the Jets’ feel-good story on one side of the ledger and a long-suffering Leafs Nation on the other, and you might just tear this country apart.

It would be awesome.

We just have to get there. That’s where things get a little bit tricky, since both teams are facing a tough road out of their own division, let alone all the way to the Final. The Leafs will probably have to go through both Tampa and Boston, while the Jets will presumably have to get by Minnesota and Nashville. As good as both teams are, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see one or both go home early.

Tonight’s game won’t provide all that much in the way of drama — it doesn’t matter much to a Leafs team that’s locked into third spot in the Atlantic, and the Jets are going to finish second in the Central. But it should still provide a good dose of drama, if only because it’s just the second meeting of the year between the two teams. The first came way back on opening night, when the Leafs arrived in Winnipeg and blew the doors off on the way to a 7-2 win. Plenty has changed since then, and maybe we get the payback game tonight. But another dominating performance from Toronto just might plant a few seeds of doubt in a young Jets team.

Would those seeds would sprout into anything by, say, early June? It’s a long shot, and everyone knows it. But for now, at least, Canadian fans can dare to dream just a little.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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