NHL playoffs may feature all-Canadian matchups
Sens-Habs, Leafs-Jets currently in position
Montreal's loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night caused a slight shift in the Eastern Conference standings. Because of a greater number of games played than the Bruins, the Canadiens slid from second to fourth.
The two clubs are tied in points and will meet Wednesday night in Boston, in what could be a key game in determining the Northeast Division winners.
Notice anything else about Wednesday's standings?
Normally we're loathe to invoke the "what if the playoffs ended today?" matchups. Invariably, pundits don't factor in skewed totals in games played and look at gross points instead of points per game.
But in this case, even when you equalize things, the East would have the following first-round matchups come late April: Ottawa vs. Montreal, and Toronto vs. Winnipeg.
It's a pretty remarkable possibility for a couple of reasons.
For three of the last four seasons, there's been just one Canadian representative in the East. The futility of the Maple Leafs since the 2004-05 lockout has meant that there's never been even three Canadian playoff teams in the conference.
As well, now there's the Winnipeg factor. The Jets will ultimately make but a brief cameo appearance in the conference, heading to the West next season because of realignment.
Winnipeg didn't make the playoffs last season, but with Washington and Tampa Bay stumbling and Carolina beset by injuries, the gritty Jets find themselves with a six-point advantage in the Southeast Division race. The Hurricanes have three games in hand on Winnipeg, but the Jets at present hold a two-game cushion in the first standings tiebreaker (all victories minus those obtained in the shootout).
It wouldn't be the first time there were four Canadian teams in the conference playoffs. In the 1980s there was a divisional playoff format and very small barrier to entry (16 of 21 teams qualified).
Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton on three occasions battled it out in the Smythe Division over the first two rounds of the playoffs while the Los Angeles Kings sat things out.
Here's a look at the (very) presumptive matchups:
Montreal vs. Ottawa
The choice of very few pundits for the 4-5 matchup heading into the season. Perhaps the Senators could have been predicted here, but not in the manner that has transpired. Ottawa lost Jared Cowen before the season even started, and then centre Jason Spezza, last year's Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, and No. 1 goalie Craig Anderson.
For the Canadiens, Michel Therrien has come in for a second turn as coach and demanded accountability. Carey Price has been great again, Andrei Markov has returned from serious knee injuries and P.K. Subban from a contract impasse, and young forwards Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and rookie Brendan Gallagher have brought offence and grit.
The two clubs have completed their season matchups already, with each winning at home.
Ottawa used a three-goal outburst in under four minutes to help drub Montreal 5-1 on Jan. 30, but since then every game has been decided by one goal. Two of the games, were it the playoffs, would have gone to sudden death.
The Habs won a Feb. 3 game in which all three goals were scored in the first. Since-departed Erik Cole scored the winner, with Price sharp with 32 stops.
The Senators won 2-1 via shootout on Feb. 25, a result that coach Paul MacLean said was "all [goalie Ben] Bishop."
On March 13 Ottawa fought back from a two-goal deficit to force extra time at the Bell Centre, but Lars Eller of the Canadiens beat Robin Lehner to determine the shootout.
Winnipeg vs. Toronto
The original Jets and Maple Leafs were in the same conference for about 15 years but never faced each other. For most of that span, it didn't happen due to a divisional-playoff format. For the last few years of that span, it was because those Jets weren't good enough to qualify for the playoffs. They were both in the post-season for 1995-96, Winnipeg's final year of their first incarnation, but their respective playoff paths didn't cross.
"Woolly" might be the best way to describe the three games the teams have played this season, with the Jets taking the final two.
The Feb. 7 encounter was the mildest, as the teams built up the bad blood, which took about 15 minutes as Frazer McLaren and Chris Thorburn then fought each other. The Leafs were down 2-1 in the third but got two late goals, the final score eliciting a hugh exhale of relief from Toronto fans and the marksman, Phil Kessel, who hadn't found the back of the next for the first two weeks of the season.
The second meeting, on March 12 in Winnipeg, was not competitive. Dustin Byfuglien set up three goals in a 5-2 Jets victory, with Blake Wheeler scoring twice. Thorburn got to work early, dropping the gloves with Colton Orr three minutes after puck drop. Dion Phaneuf and Andrew Ladd, respective captains and former teammates on Canada's world junior team, also tussled.
Four nights later the teams reached their zany zenith in a game in Toronto. Where to start? Thorburn and Orr punched each other in the face again early on, while Zach Bogosian came swooping in from the blue-line to take exception with Korbinian Holzer.
Wheeler potted two again as part of a four-goal explosion in 10 minutes in the middle frame. The Leafs were down 4-1 and seemingly en route to an embarrassing home defeat. But they eventually tied it (Kessel victimizing the Jets again) to set up a marathon, often painful to watch shootout that had more clanking than a cowbell sketch and some curious shooter selections, particularly on Toronto's side.
Bogosian's conversion and Nikolai Kulemin's miss sealed a 5-4 win for Winnipeg.
Sounds like something with the makings for a good playoff atmosphere.
As for the possibility of all three Canadian teams making the playoffs in the West … let's just say it's not looking too hot.