Canada’s best chance at a Stanley Cup, now into its 26th spring drought, will either go through Toronto or … Atlanta.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, Cup-less since Kind of a Drag was a hit song, is the only Canadian team from the Eastern Conference entering the playoffs. The two Canadian teams from the Western Conference in the playoffs, the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets, both trace their origins to the southern city that was burned to the ground during the U.S. Civil War.
The fiery logo on the front of the Calgary jerseys, in fact, connects back to that 1864 fire more than it does to any sputtering gas flares in the oil and gas industry.
The Canadian Flames will open their series Thursday night at home, playing the Colorado Avalanche. The Jets, also claiming home ice, but just barely, will play host to the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday. Toronto opens in Boston against the Bruins on Thursday.
But back to that Atlanta connection.
The Atlanta Flames failed as both a team and a business and moved northwest in 1980, where they became the Calgary Flames. Nine years later they were Stanley Cup champions.
Today’s Jets exist only because a second NHL franchise in Atlanta, the Thrashers, also failed. The original Winnipeg Jets had been lost to Arizona in 1996 in one of sport’s greatest dumb moves – they left for financial reasons, only to be an even greater financial bust in the desert. At one point, it appeared the club might move back to Manitoba. When that failed to happen, new ownership was offered the collapsing Thrashers franchise in 2011.
Given a second chance, the Jets never looked back. Season tickets sold out in 17 minutes and a waiting list had to be closed off after reaching 8,000 in a matter of hours.
The reincarnated Jets reached the playoffs only once in the first six seasons. When they finally did reach the postseason, they were swept in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks. Unlike Calgary, they have never held a Stanley Cup parade.
It was sweet irony Saturday when the Jets gained that all-important home-ice advantage by defeating their former selves, the Arizona Coyotes, 4-2 in Glendale. The team had lost five of its previous six matches, meaning it had to win this one – or else open on the road.
“That’s what was at stake,” Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice told reporters at Gila River Arena. “So we accomplished what we’d hoped to accomplish.”
Home ice was a lock for the Flames as of a week ago, when this year’s surprising overachievers clinched first place in the conference with a 5-3 win over the San Jose Sharks. It has been almost three decades since a Calgary team managed that feat and the Flames have won but one playoff series since 2004.
But that does not suggest there is no confidence in Calgary. On Friday, the city said there will be no construction work done on The Red Mile – 17 Avenue SW – until the Flames are finished their playoff run, perhaps at the end of second Cup in a 30-year span.
Like most Canadian clubs, the Flames have had their own financial crisis. It was so bad in 1999 that ownership threatened to move if fans didn’t race to buy tickets, which they did.
They reached the final in 2004 with a young Jarome Iginla leading the way, and might well have won a second Cup had an apparent Martin Gélinas goal late in the third period of Game 6 been seen by the referee and confirmed by replays. The Tampa Bay Lightning went on to win in double overtime and then took the Cup in Game 7 back in Tampa.
Then came the ugly years. The Flames missed the postseason five years in a row between 2009-10 and 2013-14. They lost in the second round to the Anaheim Ducks the following year and then again missed the playoffs entirely. They lost again to the Ducks in 2016-17, this time in the first round.
This year began with low expectations. Calgary had failed to reach the playoffs the previous season and, late in the season, had fired coach Glen Gulutzan and replaced him with relatively unknown Bill Peters. Peters today is a prime candidate for the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year.
Two other individual trophies might end up with Flames players this year. Team captain and defenceman Mark Giordano, at 35, is having the best season of his life, with 17 goals, 74 points and a remarkable plus-39. He is a strong candidate for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman.
A fourth-round pick from 2011, Johnny Gaudreau – who himself jokes about his exaggerated listing as 5-foot-9, 165 pounds – had a chance to become the first Flame to hit the 100-point mark since Theo Fleury did it back in 1992-93. He failed to register a point, however, in the Flames’ final game, a 3-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
Gaudreau, a Hobey Baker Award winner when with Boston College, lucked into a shifting NHL that today values speed far above size. A brilliant playmaker, Johnny Hockey is one of a handful of names being talked about for the Hart Trophy, which goes to the league’s most-valuable player.
If less was expected of the Flames this season, more was certainly expected of the Jets. They were the darlings of last year’s playoffs, only to lose out to the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the semi-final round. Wait until next year, fans said.
Next year is now in the books, with the Jets impressive 99 points still 15 fewer than in 2017-18. Captain Blake Wheeler (91 points) and forward Mark Scheifele (84 points) had superb seasons, but 20-year-old sensation Patrik Laine slipped from a 70-point season a year ago to 50 points this year, including 30 goals.
The Jets’ late-season swoon had some fans wondering if the city’s famous “Winnipeg Whiteout,” which dates to 1987 – was in danger of becoming a “Winnipeg Wipeout.”
The team had misplaced its identity, media said, and head coach Maurice didn’t disagree.
“We’re not very proud of our game right now,” he told media following a loss to the Minnesota Wild.
The players held a players-only closed-door meeting and talked it out. Whether it was the meeting or the prospects of getting back two injured key defencemen, Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey, the identity began to return.
As the Stanley Cup playoffs have proved year after year after year, success so often comes down to goaltending. None of the goaltenders involved – Winnipeg workhorse Connor Hellebuyck, Calgary’s duo of Mike Smith and David (Big Save Dave) Rittich – had sensational years but all had solid seasons.
With goalies, you just never know who will get hot and when.
As Scarlett O’Hara, Atlanta’s most famous fictional citizen, once said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”