In N.H.L. Playoffs, a Canadian Divide Between Winners and Losers

TORONTO — Here, in the part of Canada that likes to think of itself as the center of the country — and the center of hockey — the NHL playoffs withered quickly and predictably. But hockey rages like wild roses in Alberta, far west.

The second round of the postseason begins Tuesday, and Canada, which had three teams in the field at the start of the postseason, has shrunk to two.

In Toronto, the Maple Leafs lost a Game 7 to reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, extending and setting several nefarious records. For example, the Leafs became the first team in history the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball to lose a winner Play in the opening round of the playoffs for five straight seasons.

In Alberta, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames each won Game 7 to advance and meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1991.

Oiler’s center Connor McDavid, widely regarded as the best player of the game, scored after a tireless effort on Saturday as his team eliminated the Los Angeles Kings. Then on Sunday Johnny Gaudreauthe left winger, who led the Flames with 115 points in the regular season, scored to beat the Dallas Stars in overtime to book the Battle of Alberta.

(The Battle of Alberta is like the subway train between the Yankees and the Mets—except instead of taking the 7 and 4 trains, you take a three-hour drive north-south on Highway 2 across the prairies .And sometimes you get a goalie fight.)

The biggest stars scored the biggest goals when it mattered most in these playoffs. In New York, the Rangers eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins after star winger Artemi Panarin scored in overtime in Game 7.

But not in Toronto. The Maple Leafs have lost in nine consecutive attempts to win a game that would have eliminated their opponent in a 2004 first-round playoff series. They haven’t won a Stanley Cup since the 1966-67 season, and as of Saturday night they eclipsed Rangers’ 54-year championship drought from 1940-94. They were in the playoffs for six straight seasons and didn’t advance each time.

In a press conference following Toronto’s Game 7 loss to Lightning, the Toronto players were sad with low voices and red eyes.

“It’s hard to explain,” said the team’s captain, John Tavares, a former Islanders star who was born in suburban Toronto and signed a seven-year, $77 million deal in 2018 with the club he grew up with famous adored of loss. “It hurts. It’s disappointing. We’re trying to go all the way and we couldn’t get over that hurdle.”

Auston Matthews, the American center who scored the league’s top 60 goals in the regular season, said with his cap pulled low over his eyes, “We’re very disappointed.”

Mitch Marner, a winger who grew up in suburban Toronto, said, “We’re sick of feeling like this.”

A few hours later in Edmonton, McDavid, playing as obsessed as ever, backed his team. He leads all skaters in the playoffs by 14 points.

Unlike the quiet Leafs, Leon Draisaitl spoke effusively about his teammate McDavid. “He’s the best player in the world,” said Draisaitl, who was second to Matthews with 55 goals. “He showed that in the last two games. It’s not skill. I mean he obviously has a lot of skill, that goes without saying. It’s the will. You can see it in his eyes. You can feel it on every shift that he’s out there. He is determined. There was just no way he or we would be denied that. He went ahead. He was incredible.”

The Leafs failed to produce a performance worthy of the Game 7 phase from either Matthews or any of their other stars on Saturday. In the last 18 years, failing early in the playoffs or missing them outright has become predictable.

The collapses are numerous and it’s difficult to pick the worst, but two storms come to mind. In 2013, the Leafs led the Bruins 4-1 in the third period of Game 7 before giving up three regular goals – two in the last minute – and conceding a goal from Patrice Bergeron in overtime. Last season, the Leafs extended their three-game-to-one lead over the Montreal Canadiens, losing a Game 7 on home ice, and the Canadiens advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.

That year’s loss to the Lightning, winners of the last two championships, tempered the outcome for Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.

“This is tough because I really feel like we’re a lot closer than it seems,” Keefe said.

Over the years, the Stanley Cup’s ribbons, each listing a dozen teams, are removed to be displayed at Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame to make room for new champions. The next band will be removed in 2031 and the winners of the 1965-66 through 1977-78 seasons will be sent indoors permanently. If the Leafs don’t win by then, they’re gone.

Don’t feel too bad for Toronto. Hockey has always been its heart, but the city’s multicultural soul has found intermittent delight in other sports since 1967. The Toronto Raptors won an NBA title in 2019. Toronto FC won an MLS championship in 2017 (and reached the finals in 2016 and 2019). It’s been a while, but the Blue Jays won World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, and postseason hopes are justifiably high this season. Toronto will be fine even if the Maple Leafs aren’t.

There are calls to blow up the team and its tight-knit roster of well-paid stars. There are calls to “run it back”. Don’t pay attention. Look west where playoff hockey will be wild, guaranteeing Canada have a team in the last four. And two for at least the next week and maybe longer. No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since Montreal in 1993. The Battle of Alberta begins Wednesday in Calgary.

Darryl Sutter, the Flames coach and one of six brothers who played in the NHL and four who coached in the league, grew up in Viking, Alberta, a community of 1,083 people 85 miles southeast of Edmonton.

“Pretty lucky to have two Canadian teams from Alberta still playing,” Sutter said in his post-game press conference. “Pretty unique.”

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