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The Globe and Mail

MacGregor: Dismal hope for Canadian NHL teams causes a lot of jagged nerves

Lightning centre Alex Killorn squeezes between Senators goalie Robin Lehner and defenceman Marc Methot.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Same game, same country – but a completely different mindset.

When the national game is on the international stage, there is no one quite so cocky, so swaggering, so sure as a Canadian. We will win because it is our game and, as two Winter Olympics in a row have shown, we usually do.

But take that game to the local level, and everything changes.

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Exit swagger, enter insecurity.

It is almost as if the closer one stands to one's chosen team, the less one sees.

Dick Beddoes, the colourful writer who tap-danced on The Globe and Mail pages a generation ago, used to say Canada had so many self-styled experts and half-failed hockey players that there was a "shared delusion, whether in a church league in Toronto or the Wild Goose League in Saskatchewan" that the championship was within reach.

Sadly, Beddoes died in 1991. Two years later, thanks to a remarkable and somewhat surprising performance by goaltender Patrick Roy, the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup – the last such championship to be won by the country that created the game and owned the trophy.

Today, there is more of a "shared trepidation" that all could unravel before the NHL playoffs can even begin, and would likely soon collapse should the postseason begin with a Canadian team or two or three fortunate enough to grab a playoff spot.

Remember the Toronto Maple Leafs' Game 7 meltdown against the Boston Bruins last year?

Remember how the Ottawa Senators were the best Canada could offer a year ago, because they made it into the second round? Heading into Thursday's matchups, only two Canadian teams – Montreal and Toronto – held down playoff spots, the Canadiens standing fourth in the Eastern Conference and the Leafs fifth. The Leafs, however, had lost three in a row and, as TSN analyst Bob McKenzie put it on Ottawa sports radio Thursday: "This could be the skid that sees the 18-wheeler go off the cliff again."

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It probably won't happen, but Canadian fans have come to believe far more in disappointment in recent years than they have in opportunity.

The Senators, last year's darlings as the "Pesky Sens," are this year's dysfunctional lineup, falling to 12th in the East and, though not yet mathematically eliminated, at a point where, as they prepared to meet the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, forward Clarke MacArthur was saying: "We have a lot of respect to earn back."

In the West, where the Vancouver Canucks had long been considered Canada's next-best chance at a Cup, the wheels fell off in recent weeks to a point where fans and media have called for the heads of new coach John Tortorella and long-time general manager Mike Gillis.

Vancouver could still reach the postseason and so, too, could the surprising Winnipeg Jets, come to life recently under new head coach Paul Maurice. The Canucks stand in 10th place, the Jets in 11th. Calgary Flames, in 13th, and Edmonton Oilers, in 14th and last, are well out of it.

Such dismal hope has caused a lot of jagged nerves.

Toronto fans have their thoughts in a knot over whether coach Randy Carlyle had insulted his backup goalie, James Reimer, by saying Reimer was "just okay" after a recent 3-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Montreal fans were panicking over whether newly acquired winger Thomas Vanek would ever score when he answered with a hat trick in last Tuesday night's 6-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche. (Intriguingly, only two hats were thrown onto the ice to celebrate the occasion.)

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And in Vancouver, well, fans on the West Coast are livid by what they have seen, and not seen, over recent weeks.

Several Canadian teams have reached the Stanley Cup final in the 21 years since Montreal last won – Vancouver in 1994 and 2011, Calgary in 2004, Edmonton in 2006, Ottawa in 2007 – but have lacked that critical player or players to take them to four wins.

Theories abound on why veteran genuine stars who control their own destinies tend to back off from Canada – the weather, taxes, intense media spotlight, spousal pressures – but explaining something will not make it go away. There are now adults in Canada who have never seen the Stanley Cup raised by a Canadian team.

But if there is a silver (Cup) lining in this 21-year cloud, it is if only two Canadian teams reach the playoffs, it could well be Canada's two Original Six teams.

The Canadiens and Maple Leafs have not met in a spring test since 1979. CBC television, about to lose its lucrative Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, could not ask for anything better.

Montreal would like it because the last time the two teams met, the Habs went on to claim their fourth successive Stanley Cup.

Toronto, on the other hand, would certainly prefer a different outcome. Back in '79, the Leafs were swept in four games.

Follow me on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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