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In the NHL 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 ice hockey — the NHL playoffs have withered quickly and predictably. But hockey is raging like wild roses in Alberta, far to the west.

The second round of the playoffs begins on Tuesday, and Canada, which had three teams on the field at the start of the playoffs, is down to just two.

In Toronto, the Maple Leafs lost Game 7 to the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, extending and setting several ignominious records. The Leafs, for example, became the first team in history of the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball to lose a playoff game in the first round of the playoffs in five straight seasons.

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

Tanker Center Connor McDavid, who is widely considered the game’s best player, scored after a hard-fought effort on Saturday as his team knocked out 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 Alberta battle.

(Battle of Alberta is like the Subway Series between the Yankees and the Mets – only instead of taking the 7 and 4 trains, you take a three-hour drive north-south on Highway 2 through 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. In nine consecutive attempts to win a game that would have eliminated their opponent in a first-round playoff series dating back to 2004, the Maple Leafs have lost. They haven’t won a Stanley Cup since the 1966-67 season, and on Saturday night they eclipsed the Rangers’ 54-year championship drought from 1940-1994. They made the playoffs for six consecutive seasons and did not failed to advance each time.

At a press conference after Toronto’s Game 7 loss to the Lightning, Toronto’s players, in low voices and red-eyed, were sad.

“It’s hard to explain,” said team captain John Tavares, a former Islanders star who was born in suburban Toronto and signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the club he loved as a child in 2018. 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 best 60 goals in the regular season with his cap down over his eyes, said: “We are very disappointed.”

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

Hours later in Edmonton, McDavid, playing as possessed as ever, had his team on his back. He leads all skaters in the playoffs with 14 points.

Unlike the low-talking Leafs, Leon Draisaitl spoke enthusiastically about teammate McDavid. “He’s the best player in the world,” said Draisaitl, whose 55 goals were second only to Matthews. “He showed it in the last two games. It’s not a skill. I mean, there’s obviously a lot of talent with him, that’s for sure. It is the will. You can see it in his eyes. You can feel it every shift he’s there. He is determined. There was simply no way he, or we, were going to be turned down. He paved the way. He was amazing.

The Leafs failed to get a performance worthy of the Game 7 stage from Matthews or any of their other standouts on Saturday. Over the past 18 years, failing early in the playoffs or missing them altogether has become predictable.

The collapses are numerous, and it is difficult to choose the worst, but two storms in the lead. In 2013, the Leafs led the Bruins 4-1 in the third period of Game 7 before allowing three regulation goals – two at the last minute – and conceding a goal to Patrice Bergeron in overtime. Last season, the Leafs blew their three-to-one lead over the Montreal Canadiens and lost Game 7 at home, and the Canadiens advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The loss this year to the Lightning, winners of the last two championships, softened the result for Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.

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

Over the years, Stanley Cup bands that each list a dozen teams are retired for display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto to make way for new champions. The next group will be phased out in 2031, sending the winners of the 1965-66 to 1977-78 seasons permanently to the Hall. If the Leafs don’t win by then, they’ll be gone.

Don’t feel too bad for Toronto. Hockey has always been its heart, but the city’s multicultural soul has felt an intermittent joy since 1967 from other sports. 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 was a while ago, but the Blue Jays won World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, and playoff hopes are legitimately high this season. Toronto will be fine even if the Maple Leafs won’t.

There are calls to blow up the team and its tight-knit cadre of well-paid stars. There are calls to “relaunch it”. Do not pay attention. Look west, where playoff hockey will be wild, ensuring Canada has a team in the final four. And two for at least next week, and maybe longer. A Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since Montreal did in 1993. The battle for Alberta begins in Calgary on Wednesday.

Flames coach Darryl Sutter, one of six brothers to play in the NHL and four to coach in the league, grew up in Viking, Alta., with a population of 1,083 and 85 miles southeast of ‘Edmonton.

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

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