We’re down to one Canadian team left in the NHL playoffs, which means hockey fans across the country have come together behind a common cause: Telling people who think we should all unite behind the last Canadian team to knock it off.
That’s just how this time of year goes. Every Canadian fan knows that the country hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1993. And all of us want our team to be the one to break the streak. Get behind some other team, just for the sake of national pride? For most of us, that’s just not how it works.
So while the Jets are this season’s best bandwagon team, many Canadian fans still won’t get on board. And if you’re in the group that’s rooting for Winnipeg to fail, there’s good news — for the last quarter-century, the best Canadian teams have always found a way to blow it.
And that’s not even the teams that lost in the Final. We’ve had five of those since 1993, four of which came within one win of ending the drought. We all remember those teams. But plenty of other Canadian contenders haven’t even made it that far.
So today, as excitement builds in Winnipeg for a run to the Stanley Cup Final, let’s remember the other teams that once felt the same way, only to see it all fall apart.
We’ll look back on one season from each of Canada’s other teams that should have resulted in a trip to the Final, or even in the Stanley Cup finally coming home — but somehow didn’t.
The team: 2011–12 Vancouver Canucks
Their record: 51-22-9 and a league-leading 111 points; this was the Canucks’ second straight Presidents’ Trophy.
Starting goaltender: Roberto Luongo (2.41 GAA, 919 save percentage)… well, mostly. We’ll get to that.
Why they should have made it: By 2012, there really wasn’t much debate that the Canucks were the best team in the league. Coming off of the previous year’s heart-breaking loss in the Stanley Cup final, they opened the season with an underwhelming October before rolling over the league for the rest of the year. After two straight Presidents’ Trophies and four consecutive years of 100+ points, the Canucks went into the playoffs as the favourites to once against represent the West in the Stanley Cup final.
What went wrong: The Kings showed up. Despite only being the West’s eight-seed, the Kings were the season’s analytics darlings and felt like a tough draw in the opening round. They were more than that, sweeping the first two games in Vancouver by identical 4–2 scores. That was enough for head coach Alain Vigneault to hand the starting duties over to Cory Schneider for the remainder of the series. The backup played well, but the Kings finished off Vancouver in five games.
While the swap felt like a gutsy move at the time and Luongo bent over backwards to downplay any controversy, in hindsight this series was the beginning of the end for the Canucks as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. The next few years featured the protracted Luongo/Schneider drama, the firing of Vigneault (and John Tortorella and Willie Desjardins), and a steady lurch towards last place.
What the Jets can learn: Never assume tomorrow. Even in the aftermath of the loss to the Kings, the Canucks felt like a team well-positioned for at least a few more years of contending. Instead, they’ve won just two playoff games in the six years since, and the Sedin-era team will go into the history books as one of the best to never win a Cup.
The team: 2002–03 Ottawa Senators
Their record: 52-21-8-1 (yes, this was in the four-column standings days). That was good for 113 points and the franchise’s only Presidents’ Trophy win.
Leading scorers: Marian Hossa (80 points) and Daniel Alfredsson (78 points). The team also featured the second-half debut of 19-year-old Jason Spezza, as well as a blue line featuring both Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara. They were strong everywhere.
Starting goaltender: Patrick Lalime (2.16 GAA, .911 save percentage). OK, almost everywhere.
Why they should have made it: This was the peak of the Jacques Martin era, one that saw the Senators master the art of playing a suffocatingly effective style. They were deep and disciplined, and despite how you may remember it, they were also one of the league’s highest-scoring teams.
And on top of all that, this was the year that the Senators didn’t have to worry about running into the Maple Leafs in the playoffs. The Battle of Ontario had been one-sided over the years, and maybe that got into the Senators’ heads a little bit. But with the Leafs making an early exit, Ottawa finally had a clear path through the East that didn’t involve slaying any dragons. They knocked off the Islanders in five and the Flyers in six before meeting the Devils in the conference final, knowing that the winner would be big favourites over the upstart Mighty Ducks in the final.
What went wrong: One blown coverage that probably cost them the Stanley Cup.
That’s over-simplifying things, of course — it’s never just one play. But after falling behind 3–1 against New Jersey, the Senators stayed alive with a Game 5 win followed by some overtime heroics from Chris Phillips in Game 6 to force a deciding game back in Ottawa. That turned out to be a tense battle that seemed headed towards another sudden-death showdown. And then it all fell apart.
The Devils closed out the game, then went on to beat the Mighty Ducks in the final.
Unlike the Canucks, the Senators remained contenders for years to come, and finally got to play for a Stanley Cup in 2007. But in hindsight, there’s a good case to be made that 2003 was actually the closest they ever came to winning it all.
What the Jets can learn: On a 2-on-2, maybe don’t both take the same guy.
The team: 2005–06 Calgary Flames
(I know, but honestly, aside from the 2004 trip to the final there really isn’t much to choose from for Calgary.)
Their record: 46-25-11 for 103 points and first place in the Northwest Division
Leading scorers: Jarome Iginla (67 points) and, uh, Daymond Langkow (59 points). Look, scoring depth wasn’t a strong point — they finished 28th in the league in goals. In fact, their third-leading scorer was a rookie defenceman, Dion Phaneuf.
Starting goaltender: Miikka Kiprusoff (2.07 GAA, .923 save percentage), with the best season of his career. He took home the Vezina and first all-star team honours, and was a finalist for the Hart Trophy.
Why they should have made it: They were building off of a trip to the Cup final the previous season, albeit with a momentum-sapping lockout in between. Still, on paper this team was better than the 2004 version; Langkow was a nice addition and at the time Phaneuf seemed like the second coming of Scott Stevens. And most importantly, they had the best goaltender in the league. Goaltending wins in the playoffs, right?
What went wrong: It turns out that goaltending is voodoo. The Flames ran into a good Mighty Ducks team in the opening round, and the presence of Jean-Sebastien Giguere figured to negate some of Calgary’s advantage in net. But Giguere struggled, and the Flames held a 3–2 series lead through five. But then the Ducks switched starters, and with two games to finish things off the Flames could muster just a single goal against the clutch goaltending of — don’t laugh — Ilya Bryzgalov, who outdueled Kiprusoff to knock off the Flames in seven.
What the Jets can learn: You might want to make sure that you notice if the other team switches goalies.
The team: 2016–17 Edmonton Oilers
Their record: 47-26-9, good for 103 points and second in the Pacific Division
Starting goaltender: Cam Talbot (2.39 GAA and .919 save percentage), who played a league-leading 73 games
Why they should have made it: Well, “should have” might be a little strong — it’s not like last year’s Oilers were the Western favourites. But like the Flames, we’re a little limited in our options when it comes to Edmonton, so we’ll go with a team that had 103 points, strong goaltending, and the best player in the world up front.
What went wrong: After making the playoffs for the first time in a decade and beating the Sharks in six in the opening round, the Oilers stole a pair of games in Anaheim to shoot out to a 2–0 series lead over the Ducks. But then came three straight losses, two of which came in sudden death.
The series turning point came with the series tied in Game 5; with Edmonton seconds away from winning the game and retaking the series lead, the Ducks scored a controversial goal and went on to win in overtime.
Despite a strong showing to extend the series in Game 6, the Oilers fell just short in the seventh game. Ah well, they could build on this next year, right?
What the Jets can learn: Plan for the future, but don’t count on it working out the way you expect – nothing is guaranteed in this league. We all assume this is the first of many deep runs for the Jets. We thought that about Edmonton, too.
(Bonus lesson: Never assume the league will call interference just because somebody yanks your goalie’s pads or, I don’t know, slashes them in the face.)
The team: 2014–15 Montreal Canadiens
Their record: 50-22-10 for 110 points, their highest total since the 1980s
Starting goaltender: Carey Price (1.96 GAA, .933 save percentage), in the season that saw him win basically every award a goalie can win, including MVP
Why they should have made it: Because they had the best goaltender in the world. The rest of the team wasn’t all that strong, and they ranked in the bottom half of the league in goals scored. But Price stood on his head all year long, and you figured he’d be a tough beat for any team they ran into during the playoffs.
What went wrong: They drew a tricky first-round matchup with the Senators (who’d just had that crazy Andrew Hammond run to slip into the post-season) and won that one in six. But then they collapsed against the Lightning in the second round, losing the first three games of the series and ultimately being eliminated in six. The key moment came in the opening game, a double-overtime thriller that the Lightning won on Nikita Kucherov‘s goal.
Or did they? On further review, the play sure looked offside:
There was still time for the Canadiens to recover, but Tyler Johnson’s buzzer beater in Game 3 essentially spelled the end.
What the Jets can learn: Remember to thank Kucherov and the Canadiens for giving us the offside coach’s challenge if and when you inevitably get screwed over by one. (Then again, when it comes to terrible replay reviews, you guys still kind of owe us one.)
The team: 2003–04 Toronto Maple Leafs
Their record: 45-24-10 for 103 points, which established a franchise record that stood until this season
Leading scorers: Mats Sundin (75 points), Bryan McCabe (53 points) and Joe Nieuwendyk (50 points). But this team may be best remembered for their deadline pickups, Brian Leetch and Ron Francis.
Starting goaltender: A 38-year-old Ed Belfour (2.13 GAA, .918 save percentage), in what turned out to be his last strong season
Why they should have made it: We could take our pick from a few Maple Leafs teams from the Pat Quinn era, including the 1999 and 2002 teams that went to the conference final. But there’s a strong argument that this team was the best of them all. The roster featured five future Hall of Famers (and maybe a sixth if Alexander Mogilny ever gets in), plus Gary Roberts and Owen Nolan. But it was a very old core, and with the 2004–05 lockout looming, there was a strong sense that this was going to be the group’s last chance.
What went wrong: Even with all the big names, the Leafs couldn’t rise above a logjam at the top of the Eastern Conference – six teams finished with between 100 and 106 points, so the road to the final was going to be tough. The Leafs earned their usual win over the Senators, thanks to the immortal Patrick Lalime meltdown in Game 7. But they drew a tough matchup with the Flyers in the second round, lost the first two games in Philadelphia, and saw their season end in six games thanks to Jeremy Roenick.
That moment still stands as the most recent appearance by the Maple Leafs in the second round. The lockout spelled the end of several of the key veterans, and from there it was on to John Ferguson Jr., the Muskoka Five, Brian Burke and beyond.
What the Jets can learn: Veterans are nice, but make sure you have at least a few good young players to help with the future. [Checks Jets roster.] Cool, looks like you already knew that.
The team: 1994–95 Quebec Nordiques
(What, you didn’t think we’d forget them, did you?)
Their record: 30-13-5 in a lockout-shortened 48-game season. That was good for 65 points and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Leading scorers: Joe Sakic (62 points), Peter Forsberg (50 points) and Owen Nolan (49 points)
Starting goaltender: Stephane Fiset (2.78 GAA, .910 save percentage). Goaltending was definitely the weak spot, with Jocelyn Thibault and Garth Snow providing backup. They probably would have won it all with a first-ballot Hall of Famer back there, but in fairness, it’s not like those guys ever get traded.
Why they should have made it: The short answer is that they were good enough to win the Stanley Cup, as we’d see a year later. After years of misery both on and off the ice, this was the season that everything clicked in Quebec. The big payoff for the Eric Lindros trade finally arrived, as Forsberg was an instant star and won Rookie of the Year honours. Sakic had his first top-five scoring season, Nolan gave them three point-a-game players, and this was also the year that they had Wendel Clark. They started 12-1-0, led the NHL in goals scored, and went into the playoffs as the clear favourites in the East.
What went wrong: Freaking Alexei Kovalev.
Despite being the top seed, the Nordiques had the bad luck to run into the defending-champion Rangers in round one. They won the opener but dropped the next two, setting up a crucial game four in New York. Sakic scored to make it 3–0 with seconds left in the first, only to have it wiped out by a delayed whistle as Kovalev rolled around on the ice after a slash.
The goal didn’t count, Kovalev made a miraculous recovery, and the Rangers came back to win in overtime to take a 3–1 series lead. The Nordiques tried to protest the game; the league took the exceptionally unusual steps of admitting the call was blown and fining referee Andy Van Hellemond, but the final score stood.
The Rangers finished the series in six, sending the Nordiques home in the first round. Weeks later, the team was sold to new ownership and was on the way to Colorado.
What the Jets can learn: Appreciate what you have now, because you never know when your team is going to pick up and head south. Wait, you already knew that one, too.