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Stanley Cup Playoffs return to Canada

Year after country was shut out, Oilers clinch berth, others likely to follow

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- As droughts go, this one was modest. But don't try telling that to the people of a country that is the cradle of hockey, one that draws a great deal of its winter strength from a dropped puck.

After failing to place even one of its seven NHL teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season for the first time since 1969-70, Canada is back in the postseason. The Edmonton Oilers, the first of what should be several Canadian teams to play in the 2017 postseason, clinched a berth on Tuesday with a 2-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings.

If Canada's one-year drought wasn't one of marathon length, you couldn't say the same for the Oilers, who return to the playoffs for the first time since they went to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes.

You'd better believe that Edmonton is stoked now, the Oilers playing their first season downtown at spectacular Rogers Place, led by coach Todd McLellan and terrific 20-year-old NHL sophomore Connor McDavid.

Video: LAK@EDM: McDavid tallies off deflected pass attempt

To put this in a bit of perspective, when the Oilers began their improbable 2006 playoff run, falling one victory shy of their first championship since 1990, McDavid was three months past his ninth birthday.

It was a long, miserable spring throughout all of Canada last season, each of the teams north of the U.S. border shut out of the postseason. And the nation didn't even have to hold its breath on the final weekend of the regular season; with 11 days left on the schedule, the Ottawa Senators were the last to pack their bags, the Philadelphia Flyers beating the Washington Capitals 2-1 in a shootout to mathematically bury Ottawa's paper-thin hopes.

For the first time in 46 years, players didn't have to carry passports for the playoffs.

Canadian hockey fans staggered around punch-drunk for a time, trying to figure out who to cheer in the postseason. Some opted to simply cheer against other teams.

Thankfully, native Nova Scotian Sidney Crosby took the Stanley Cup home to Canada's East Coast at season's end -- even if he won it leading the Pittsburgh Penguins.

If the so-called invisible playoffs hurt, more than a few fans up this way did some revenge gloating come September, when Team Canada roared to victory in the World Cup of Hockey 2016, winning all five of its games to convincingly win the gold medal while the U.S. crashed out with three losses and no wins, scoring just five goals.

This month, on the occasion of the Stanley Cup's 125th birthday, Canada governor general David Johnston promised that the Cup will come home this season. That would mean a Canadian team would have to actually play for it in the Final, which hasn't happened since the Vancouver Canucks fell to the Boston Bruins in 2011.

The 2015-16 washout was an especially harsh reality, considering that in 2014-15 five Canadian teams had qualified for the playoffs, only the Toronto Maple Leafs and Oilers failing to make the 16-team field. Even if none advanced to either conference final -- the Canadiens were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames were bounced by the Anaheim Ducks, each in the second round -- there were 27 playoff games involving Canadian teams.

Video: The Edmonton Oilers make the playoffs in 2017

Having five teams in that postseason was a marked improvement from 2013-14, when only the Canadiens qualified.

That season, Montreal fans boasted that the Canadiens were, at long last, "Canada's team," the country's patriotic cheering choice; indeed, the only cheering choice. Of course, that wouldn't be the case with the many who adopted the slogan "ABC," that is, "Anyone But Canadiens."

Canadiens owner Geoff Molson took no special pleasure in being Canada's sole playoff representative.

"All seven are 'Canada's team,' " Molson said. "We were very proud to make the playoffs, it's hard to do. The fact that six other Canadian teams didn't make it doesn't make us more proud. It's just one of those things that happened this year."

Molson's Canadiens swept the Lightning in the first round and eliminated the Bruins in seven games in the second round before falling to the New York Rangers in a six-game Eastern Conference Final

There hasn't been a Canada-based dynasty since the 1980s, when the Oilers won five championships in seven seasons from 1984-90. Before that, the Canadiens won four straight championships to close out the 1970s. No team from Canada has won the Stanley Cup since the Canadiens in 1993.

And no one will be talking about a dynasty in Canada for years to come. That said, putting at least one Canadian team into the playoffs for one year in a row is not a bad way to start the building project.

On Tuesday, the Oilers unlocked the playoff door in the Great White North. Now it's up to a few others to come inside and join the fun.

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