No playoffs this year north of border country shut out for first time in 46 years.
For the first time since the 1969-70 season, the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be contested entirely south of the 49th parallel. And, as salt in the wound for patriotic Canadian fans, Commissioner Gary Bettman will present hockey’s Holy Grail to the captain of a U.S.-based team for the 22nd consecutive season.
Canada may stake claim to the invention of hockey as we know it, but teams from this country clearly didn’t bring their Eh-game in 2015-16. With 11 days left in the regular season, all seven Canadian-based teams have been eliminated from playoff contention. The Philadelphia Flyers’ 2-1 shootout victory against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday officially eliminated the Ottawa Senators, the last Canadian team that had any shot to make the postseason.
Last season, five Canadian teams skated beyond 82 games, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers not qualifying for the playoffs. That was a considerable improvement from 2013-14, when only the Montreal Canadiens reached the postseason. That season, Canadiens fans gloated that their heroes were, at long last, “Canada’s team,” the country’s patriotic cheering choice; indeed, the only cheering choice. Of course, that wouldn’t be the case with the many who adopted the slogan “ABC,” that is, “Anyone but Canadiens.”
“All seven are ‘Canada’s team,'” Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said at the time. “We were very proud to make the playoffs, it’s hard to do. The fact that six other Canadian teams didn’t make it doesn’t make us more proud. It’s just one of those things that happened this year.
“Then again … when our team travels to the six other Canadian cities, you see that we have fans everywhere. … Temporarily, we are in a position to be highly visible and highly talked about from coast to coast. I’m very proud of that, but I’d never be so bold as to say we’re Canada’s team.”
None of the seven clubs will carry that banner into the playoffs this season. That will test the strength of Canadian fans’ devotion to the game when there isn’t a “local” team to support.
The NHL was a 12-team, two-division league in 1969-70 when the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, Canada’s only two teams, were parked on the sidelines for the playoffs following a 76-game schedule.
Toronto was out long before the final weekend of the regular season, but Montreal was alive for what would be an almost comical finish.
It wasn’t so much that the Canadiens were locked out of the playoffs for the first time in 22 years, a stretch during which they won 10 of their NHL-record 24 Stanley Cup titles, as how they failed to make it.
On the final Sunday afternoon of the regular season, the New York Rangers defeated the Detroit Red Wings 9-5. The Rangers needed five or more goals to keep their playoff hopes alive, and they got them against the Red Wings; Detroit was already in the postseason, and some Canadiens suggested the Red Wings rolled over for New York.
“It’s hard to blame the Red Wings because you can’t expect another team to help you if you can’t make the playoffs in 75 games,” injured Canadiens forward Mickey Redmond said. “But they didn’t have to lay down and die.”
So the Canadiens went into their finale at Chicago Stadium against the Blackhawks that night needing a victory, a tie or five goals scored, based on a tiebreaker, to vault over the Rangers and qualify for the playoffs.
The Canadiens trailed 3-2 after 40 minutes and were down 5-2 after Pit Martin scored with 9:16 remaining, so coach Claude Ruel pulled out all the stops in a bid to score the three goals he needed.
Ruel pulled goalie Rogie Vachon every time the visitors penetrated the Chicago end of the rink; however, they didn’t score and saw the Blackhawks pour five shots into an empty net for a 10-2 victory and an end to the Canadiens’ season.
The Montreal Gazette stripped a banner across the top of its front page the following morning: “R.I.P. – A Stanley Cup dynasty ends: Canadiens (1949-70).”
The game story was topped with a headline that dripped sarcasm, the city’s sports landscape left to the second-year Expos: “Habs blow it … play ball.”
Coincidentally, on Friday and Saturday, the Toronto Blue Jays will be at Olympic Stadium, the former home of the Expos, to play two preseason games.
Once again, 46 years later, baseball takes Canada’s center stage, in fact, its only stage.
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