(Reuters) - Following the Ottawa Senators’ sizzling run to secure a last-minute playoff berth, Canadian teams enter the Stanley Cup tournament in their greatest numbers since 2004, raising hopes of ending the country’s 22-year Cup drought.
In all, five of the seven Canadian NHL franchises will compete in the 16-team playoff, a big shift from last year when only the Montreal Canadiens made the cut.
The Senators, who went 23-4-4 over their final 31 games, would seem to have momentum on their side, forcing their way into the postseason on the last day of the season.
But if common wisdom is that strong goaltending is key to successfully navigating four best-of-seven playoff series, the Montreal Canadiens and their MVP-candidate goalie Carey Price look good.
If you’re a Canadian fan, you’re looking for any reason to hope at this time of year even if the odds are stacked against you. Las Vegas betting sites currently favor U.S. teams New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks.
“We’re a playoff team and we have as much of a chance as anyone,” Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler told reporters after the team clinched a playoff berth last week, the first for the team since it moved north from Atlanta in 2011.
Along with the Jets, Senators and Canadiens, the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames will appear in the postseason, which kicks off on Wednesday.
The last Canadian team to hoist the chalice was the 1993 edition of the Canadiens, and the ensuing drought has been a frustrating stretch for a country that perhaps places more significance than any other in hockey success.
“Canadians believe we appreciate the game more, and certainly in many of the seven (Canadian) markets fans are starved for winners in a way fans in other NHL cities are not,” said Damien Cox, hockey columnist at the Toronto Star.
The drought has come despite a constant churn of top-end Canadian talent, as well as men’s gold in three of the past four Olympics. But in the NHL, that top-end talent more often than not earns a U.S. paycheck.
Sidney Crosby may have scored Canada’s “golden goal” in the 2010 Olympics, but he won his 2009 Stanley Cup for the U.S.-based Pittsburgh Penguins.
Likewise Canadian Olympic heroes Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, who hoisted the 2010 and 2013 Stanley Cup with Chicago, and Patrice Bergeron with the Boston Bruins in 2011.
“I think the specific circumstances differ in each market, but ultimately, it comes down to player acquisition, and Canadian teams just haven’t been as proficient in putting together talented teams since (Montreal) won in ‘93,” said Cox.
As ever, the diehard fans can find reason to believe this year could signal the Cup’s repatriation.
Montreal enters the post-season as the second seed in the Eastern Conference, carried by Price and a strong defense, including star rearguard P.K. Subban.
Ottawa have also benefited from strength between the pipes, with Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond carrying them down the stretch.
The Canucks have experience with Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin and playoff-seasoned goaltender Ryan Miller.
Calgary, like Ottawa, is on an unlikely run, having been pegged in the preseason as surefire bottom-dwellers. The pressure to perform will be low, which could help them.
Likewise the Jets, where fans are just happy to see playoff hockey return after a long absence due to the departure of the original Jets franchise in 1996.
The first round will feature two all-Canadian matchups, with Ottawa facing Montreal and Calgary taking on Vancouver. That guarantees at least two Canadian teams make the second round, but also that two teams will be eliminated early.
Canadian fans looking for reasons to hope can also grab on to this: the last three times the Flames and Canucks faced each other in the first round, the winner went on to the cup final.
Reporting by Cameron French in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue