TORONTO — Here, in the part of Canada that likes to think of itself as the center of the country — and as the center of ice hockey — the NHL playsoffs quickly and predictably withered. But hockey is raging like wild roses in Alberta, way to the west.
The second round of the postseason begins Tuesday, and Canada, which had three teams in the field at the start of the postseason, is down to two.
In Toronto, the Maple Leafs lost a Game 7 to the reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, extending and setting several ignominious records. The Leafs, for example, became the first team in the history of the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball to lose a winner-take-all game in the opening round of the playoffs in five consecutive seasons.
In Alberta, the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames each won Game 7s to advance, deliciously, and will meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1991.
Oilers center Connor McDavid, who is widely regarded as the best player in the game, scored after a relentless effort Saturday as his team eliminated the Los Angeles Kings. Then, on Sunday, Johnny Gaudreauthe left winger who led the Flames with 115 points in the regular season, scored to beat the Dallas Stars in overtime to book the Battle of Alberta.
(The Battle of Alberta is like the Subway Series between the Yankees and the Mets — only instead of riding the 7 and 4 trains you make a three-hour car trip running north-south on Highway 2 through the prairies. And sometimes you get a goalie fight.)
The biggest stars have scored the biggest goals when it has mattered most in these playoffs. In New York, the Rangers eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins after the star winger Artemi Panarin scored in overtime in Game 7.
But not in Toronto. In nine consecutive attempts to win a game that would have eliminated their opponent in a first-round playoff series, dating to 2004, the Maple Leafs have lost. They haven’t won a Stanley Cup since the 1966-67 seasonand on Saturday night, they eclipsed the Rangers’ 54-year championship drought from 1940 to 1994. They have been in the playoffs for six consecutive seasons, and failed to advance each time.
In a news conference after Toronto’s Game 7 loss to the Lightning, the Toronto players, low-voiced and red-eyed, were sad.
“It’s hard to explain,” the team’s captain, John Tavares, a former star of the Islanders who was born in suburban Toronto and who signed a $77 million, seven-year contract with the club he famously adored as a child in 2018, said of the loss. “It hurts. It’s disappointing. We’re trying to go all the way, and we haven’t been able to get past this hurdle.”
Auston Matthews, the American center who scored a league-best 60 goals in the regular season, cap pulled low over his eyes, said, “We’re very disappointed.”
Mitch Marner, a winger who grew up in suburban Toronto, said, “We’re sick and tired of feeling this way.”
A few hours later in Edmonton, McDavid, playing in as possessed a manner as he ever has, was putting his team on his back. He leads all skaters in the playoffs with 14 points.
In contrast to the low-talking Leafs, Leon Draisaitl was ebullient talking about his teammate McDavid. “He’s the best player in the world,” said Draisaitl, whose 55 goals were second to Matthews. “He showed that in the last two games. It’s not skill. I mean, there’s lots of skill obviously with him, that’s a given. It’s the will. You can see it in his eyes. You can feel it every shift that he’s out there. He’s determined. There was just no way that he, or us, were going to be denied. He led the way. He was amazing.”
The Leafs failed to get a performance worthy of the Game 7 stage from Matthews or any of their other stars Saturday. Over the past 18 years, failing early in the playoffs or missing them altogether has become predictable.
The collapses are numerous, and it is difficult to pick the worst, but two storm to mind. In 2013, the Leafs led the Bruins, 4-1, in the third period of Game 7 before surrendering three regulation goals — two in the last minute — and conceding a Patrice Bergeron goal in overtime. Last season, the Leafs coughed up their three-games-to-one lead over the Montreal Canadiens and lost a Game 7 on home ice, and the Canadiens went on to the Stanley Cup finals.
Losing this year to the Lightning, winners of the last two championships, softened the outcome for Leafs Coach Sheldon Keefe.
“This one is tough because I really feel we’re a lot closer than it appears,” Keefe said.
As years go by, the bands on the Stanley Cup that each list a dozen teams are removed for display in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto to make room for new champions. The next band will be removed in 2031, sending the winners from the 1965-66 to 1977-78 seasons permanently to the Hall. If the Leafs don’t win by then, they will be gone.
Don’t feel too bad for Toronto. Hockey has always been its heart, but the city’s multicultural soul has felt intermittent joy since 1967 from other sports. The Toronto Raptors won an NBA title in 2019. Toronto FC. won an MLS championship in 2017 (and made the finals in 2016 and 2019). It was a while ago, but the Blue Jays won World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, and postseason hopes are legitimately high this season. Toronto will be fine even if the Maple Leafs will not.
There are calls to blow up the team and its close-knit cadre of well-paid stars. There are calls to “run it back.” Pay no mind. Look west, where playoff hockey will be wild, guaranteeing that Canada has a team among the final four. And two for at least the next week, and perhaps longer. A Canadian team has not won the Stanley Cup since Montreal did so in 1993. The Battle of Alberta begins in Calgary on Wednesday.
Darryl Sutter, the Flames’ coach and one of six brothers to play in the NHL and four to coach in the league, grew up in Viking, Alberta, population 1,083, and 85 miles southeast of Edmonton.
“Pretty lucky that two Canadian teams are still playing, being from Alberta,” Sutter said in his postgame news conference. “Pretty unique.”