It’s a long shot, sure, but even as a remote possibility it still gets the imagination flying.
They might even call it the Ikea Series.
Canadian teams have not met in the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2004, when Calgary and Vancouver went at it in the West and Ottawa-Toronto in the East. Before that, it was 1994, when Toronto and Vancouver drew each other in the Western Conference final, Vancouver moving on to take the New York Rangers to seven games in the final. The last time Canadian teams met in the Stanley Cup final was 1989, Calgary Flames prevailing over the Montreal Canadiens in six games.
Heading into this past weekend, there was talk of a possible Winnipeg Jets – Ottawa Senators opening round in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Senators, with a 2-1 overtime win Friday night, jumped five spots in the standings when they moved a single point ahead of the slipping Boston Bruins in the Northeast Division. The Winnipeg Jets, with games Friday against the Washington Capitals and Sunday against the Carolina Hurricanes, had an excellent chance to move into a playoff position and, indeed, briefly took over eighth place with a victory Friday over the unpredictable Capitals.
Boston, however, won its game Saturday afternoon in a shootout with the Philadelphia Flyers, sending Ottawa back down to seventh place, and the Senators promptly fouled Scotiabank Place with a dreadful effort Saturday evening against the Toronto Maple Leafs. When the Jets fell 4-3 in regulation to the lowly Carolina Hurricanes Sunday evening, all the heady possibilities of late Friday seemed to slip out of reach.
It is still not impossible. Winnipeg has 10 games remaining, Ottawa nine. Good runs by both, particularly the Jets, could still make it happen, though it is now a long shot, just as it is that the Calgary Flames might rise into the playoffs and end up meeting the Vancouver Canucks.
But such fun it would be. The two lesser cities, of roughly equal size, are both desperate for wider hockey recognition in a country inexplicably dominated by broadcast coverage of a team that hasn’t been in a Cup final for 45 years.
Both cities have felt new significance this year, as the Jets were reborn and both the Jets and the Senators have surprised with their play. Both cities boast the country’s largest Ikea stores – the symbol of “fresh starts” for both young couples and the recently divorced. Ottawa’s Ikea might be larger at 427,000 square feet, but Winnipeg’s, slated to open later in the year, will be newer.
Their fans are a study in contrast, Ottawa fans so librarian they regularly allow themselves to get steamrolled by visiting fans of the Leafs and Canadiens, while Jets fans are boisterous, loud and brash – recently chanting “Crosby’s better!” at Alexander Ovechkin and “silver medal!” at Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who allowed the Sidney Crosby overtime goal that decided the Olympic gold.
The ex-Thrashers have never experienced playoffs against a Canadian team. In fact, the defunct Atlanta franchise only once made the postseason, being swept four straight in 2007 by the New York Rangers.
Winnipeg and Ottawa, however, have met previously in Stanley Cup play, though no one remembers it. The old Winnipeg Victorias even won Cups in the 1895-96, 1900-01 and 1901-02 seasons, twice beating Montreal teams and once the Toronto Wellingtons.
It was the Winnipeg Rowing Club that went up against Ottawa’s Silver Seven in 1904 for the championship of the Dominion. The Rowers did win one game in Ottawa, 6-2, but the Silver Seven claimed the Stanley Cup by winning the other two matches.
That Winnipeg team featured future hall-of-famer (Bad) Joe Hall, who later won Cups with the Quebec Bulldogs and Kenora Thistles and who caused the 1919 Cup to be cancelled when he died during a vicious influenza outbreak that savaged his Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans.
To know what it meant in those days for a spunky western team to take on the hockey establishment from the east, one need only glance at the Manitoba Free Press’s account of Winnipeg’s first Stanley Cup win.
“Well and worthy was the victory,” the Free Press reported on Feb. 15, 1896, “long and determined the battle, and for the first time in the history of the hockey champions of the effete east they had to submit to a complete whitewash.
“… Montreal tonight is clothed in sack-cloth and ashes, and the sports have gone to sleepless beds with empty pocketbooks. The ‘Peg’ contingent on the other hand have enough money to start a private bank …”
Winnipeg and Ottawa will still meet this spring, guaranteed, but it may only be for their final regular-season match against each other on March 26.
Too bad it isn’t likely to be later.
It would be a sensation.