Thursday, May 3, 2018

Seven Canadian teams that should have made the Stanley Cup final (and how it all went wrong)

We’re down to one Canadian team left in the NHL playoffs, which means hockey fans across the country have come together behind a common cause: Telling people who think we should all unite behind the last Canadian team to knock it off.

That’s just how this time of year goes. Every Canadian fan knows that the country hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1993. And all of us want our team to be the one to break the streak. Get behind some other team, just for the sake of national pride? For most of us, that’s just not how it works.

So while the Jets are this season’s best bandwagon team, many Canadian fans still won’t get on board. And if you’re in the group that’s rooting for Winnipeg to fail, there’s good news — for the last quarter-century, the best Canadian teams have always found a way to blow it.

And that’s not even the teams that lost in the Final. We’ve had five of those since 1993, four of which came within one win of ending the drought. We all remember those teams. But plenty of other Canadian contenders haven’t even made it that far.

So today, as excitement builds in Winnipeg for a run to the Stanley Cup Final, let’s remember the other teams that once felt the same way, only to see it all fall apart.

We’ll look back on one season from each of Canada’s other teams that should have resulted in a trip to the Final, or even in the Stanley Cup finally coming home — but somehow didn’t.

The team: 2011–12 Vancouver Canucks

Their record: 51-22-9 and a league-leading 111 points; this was the Canucks’ second straight Presidents’ Trophy.

Leading scorers: Henrik Sedin (81 points), Daniel Sedin (67 points), Alex Burrows (52 points)

Starting goaltender: Roberto Luongo (2.41 GAA, 919 save percentage)… well, mostly. We’ll get to that.

Why they should have made it: By 2012, there really wasn’t much debate that the Canucks were the best team in the league. Coming off of the previous year’s heart-breaking loss in the Stanley Cup final, they opened the season with an underwhelming October before rolling over the league for the rest of the year. After two straight Presidents’ Trophies and four consecutive years of 100+ points, the Canucks went into the playoffs as the favourites to once against represent the West in the Stanley Cup final.

What went wrong: The Kings showed up. Despite only being the West’s eight-seed, the Kings were the season’s analytics darlings and felt like a tough draw in the opening round. They were more than that, sweeping the first two games in Vancouver by identical 4–2 scores. That was enough for head coach Alain Vigneault to hand the starting duties over to Cory Schneider for the remainder of the series. The backup played well, but the Kings finished off Vancouver in five games.

While the swap felt like a gutsy move at the time and Luongo bent over backwards to downplay any controversy, in hindsight this series was the beginning of the end for the Canucks as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. The next few years featured the protracted Luongo/Schneider drama, the firing of Vigneault (and John Tortorella and Willie Desjardins), and a steady lurch towards last place.

What the Jets can learn: Never assume tomorrow. Even in the aftermath of the loss to the Kings, the Canucks felt like a team well-positioned for at least a few more years of contending. Instead, they’ve won just two playoff games in the six years since, and the Sedin-era team will go into the history books as one of the best to never win a Cup.

The team: 2002–03 Ottawa Senators

Their record: 52-21-8-1 (yes, this was in the four-column standings days). That was good for 113 points and the franchise’s only Presidents’ Trophy win.

Leading scorers: Marian Hossa (80 points) and Daniel Alfredsson (78 points). The team also featured the second-half debut of 19-year-old Jason Spezza, as well as a blue line featuring both Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara. They were strong everywhere.

Starting goaltender: Patrick Lalime (2.16 GAA, .911 save percentage). OK, almost everywhere.

Why they should have made it: This was the peak of the Jacques Martin era, one that saw the Senators master the art of playing a suffocatingly effective style. They were deep and disciplined, and despite how you may remember it, they were also one of the league’s highest-scoring teams.

And on top of all that, this was the year that the Senators didn’t have to worry about running into the Maple Leafs in the playoffs. The Battle of Ontario had been one-sided over the years, and maybe that got into the Senators’ heads a little bit. But with the Leafs making an early exit, Ottawa finally had a clear path through the East that didn’t involve slaying any dragons. They knocked off the Islanders in five and the Flyers in six before meeting the Devils in the conference final, knowing that the winner would be big favourites over the upstart Mighty Ducks in the final.

What went wrong: One blown coverage that probably cost them the Stanley Cup.

That’s over-simplifying things, of course — it’s never just one play. But after falling behind 3–1 against New Jersey, the Senators stayed alive with a Game 5 win followed by some overtime heroics from Chris Phillips in Game 6 to force a deciding game back in Ottawa. That turned out to be a tense battle that seemed headed towards another sudden-death showdown. And then it all fell apart.

The Devils closed out the game, then went on to beat the Mighty Ducks in the final.

Unlike the Canucks, the Senators remained contenders for years to come, and finally got to play for a Stanley Cup in 2007. But in hindsight, there’s a good case to be made that 2003 was actually the closest they ever came to winning it all.

What the Jets can learn: On a 2-on-2, maybe don’t both take the same guy.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

No comments:

Post a Comment