Last year saw the Canadian-based franchises in the NHL shut out of the playoffs. At the time, I felt that it was partly due to bad luck as both the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers had major injuries afflict their best players, possibly costing them playoff chances. However, both of those teams have had healthy seasons so far in 2016/17. They along with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Ottawa Senators, and the Calgary Flames could soon clinch playoff spots.
Montreal is the top team of the Canadian-based franchises. Lately, that’s been largely because they’ve done a number on the Ottawa Senators. Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto actually sit 1-2-3 in the Atlantic Division with a close race between the first-placed Habs and the second-placed Sens developing for the home stretch. The Canadiens’ lead has held up of late largely because of three wins over Ottawa directly. Most recently, the Habs beat the Sens on Saturday night to extend their lead to three points.
The Canadiens are 11 points clear of the playoff bubble in the Eastern Conference. With home games coming up this week against Dallas and Florida, Montreal have an excellent chance of clinching a playoff berth soon. They will certainly want to get the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic to guarantee themselves home-ice advantage through two playoff rounds. However, when it comes to just making it into the post-season, it’s virtually impossible to picture them on the outside looking in now.
Despite the loss on Saturday night, Ottawa appears destined for the playoffs too. They will stay on the road for the balance of the month, with games against the Philadelphia Flyers and the Minnesota Wild coming up. The Flyers are certainly on the cold side right now, and Minnesota definitely is, winners of just two games in their last ten. The Sens will then open April against both Winnipeg and Detroit, two of the weaker teams in the east. It seems likely that the Sens will have a playoff berth clinched at the end of their four road games ahead. When compared to the pre-season expectations with this club, Ottawa contending for a home-ice series in the first round of the playoffs is a surprise.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are a surprise too, however, unlike Montreal and Ottawa, the Leafs aren’t sitting pretty for the post-season yet. They could easily fall behind the Boston Bruins for top-three positioning in the Atlantic. Furthermore, the Leafs are only three points clear of the New York Islanders and four points clear of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Toronto’s remaining schedule is as follows:
March 28th: vs. Florida
March 30th: @ Nashville
April 1st: @ Detroit
April 3rd: @ Buffalo
April 4th: vs. Washington
April 6th: vs. Tampa Bay
April 8th: vs. Pittsburgh
April 9th: vs. Columbus
Five home games certainly helps, but note Toronto’s insanely difficult strength of schedule in their last four games. The Lightning aren’t slouches following Steve Yzerman’s move to get his team into the playoffs. On top of them, Toronto will have to face arguably the three best teams in the NHL this season in Washington, Pittsburgh, and Columbus. Points might be hard to come by in their last four games, meaning the Leafs are under pressure to get some points in the standings against Florida, Nashville, Detroit, and Buffalo.
The other two Canadian-based teams that are likely to make the playoffs are both Edmonton and Calgary. Neither team is out of the picture for the Pacific Division title, especially Edmonton who are currently tied for the lead in points. But there is no close playoff-bubble race in the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Kings have just 77 points in the standings; they are nine back of St. Louis, eleven back of Calgary, and fourteen back of Edmonton. The Pacific Division title could come down to the final days for the Alberta-based teams, but when it comes to simply clinching a playoff spot that matter is imminent.
The two Canadians teams that won’t make the playoffs are both Winnipeg and Vancouver. The Jets are 13 points back of St. Louis with seven games remaining. That means that Winnipeg needs to win all of its games while the Blues need to lose all of theirs. The Canucks are mathematically eliminated, even if they run the tables from here on out. Road games were this club’s biggest problem as they enter Sunday just 12-22-3 from that perspective.
Of course making the playoffs is just one matter. Doing well inside of them is another. No Canadian-based team has won the Stanley Cup since the 1993 Canadiens. I looked at that matter a year ago and, combining the NHL with MLB and the NBA, I called it “The Canadian Slump.” It’s been nearly a quarter decade since any team in those league won the outright championship. If a team did it this year, then the best candidate would be Montreal with Carey Price and, possibly, two rounds of playoff home series advantage.