By Lori Bennett
National Sports Columnist
A Canadian Stanley Cup Fantasy
With just a handful of games remaining in the regular season, it won’t be long until there is a real post-season to talk about. But for one week I thought it would be fun to mock up a Stanley Cup Playoffs fantasy, and this one comes with a nice Canadian flavour.
Eastern Conference Round One
In the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Maple Leafs were the only Canadian team to make it to the post-season. A valiant effort by the Ottawa Senators came up short but was impressive enough that new owner Ryan Reynolds awarded GM Pierre Dorion a contract extension and a chance to try again next year.
The Leafs inevitably met the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, with Tampa claiming home ice advantage. In Game 1 in Tampa, Ilya Samsonov was strong for two periods, but early in the third the Lightning were pressing with Corey Perry creating a screen at crease edge.
Auston Matthews, with his newfound defensive conscience, checked Perry into Samsonov causing the three to fell awkwardly. Samsonov left the game injured and in came Matt Murray. In an unprecedented soiling of the proverbial bed, Murray allowed five third period goals and the Leafs lost in embarrassing fashion.
Murray got a redemption start in Game 2, with Erik Kallgren backing him up. Two periods and six goals later, Coach Sheldon Keefe had seen enough. Murray was pulled in favour of Kallgren, but it was too little too late and the Maple Leafs left the sunshine state down two.
Kallgren started Game 3, and in a performance comparable to a young Patrick Roy he shut out the Lightning in front of the home crowd. Kallgren led them to another win to tie the series on Toronto, and again in an overtime win in Tampa. They were headed back to Toronto with a chance to end it all on home ice.
In Game 6, it was déjà vu all over again. An awkward collision between Corey Perry and John Tavares ended with the captain being helped off the ice and unable to finish the game. The Lightning won, and Perry needed security accompaniment to leave Scotiabank Arena.
This story had a better ending for Tavares, who was back on the ice for Game 7. He got his first point of the series assisting on a Matthew Knies game-winning goal, and the Leafs won their first round of the playoffs since the wheel was invented.
Elsewhere in the East, the Bruins swept the Islanders, the Devils eliminated the Rangers in a hard-fought six games, and the playoff-seasoned Penguins tamed the Hurricanes in five.
Western Conference Round One
Two Canadian teams earned the right to play more than 82 games.
The Winnipeg Jets scraped into the playoffs to meet the Vegas Golden Knights and were swept in four games. Their lockers were barely cleared before Kevin Cheveldayoff accepted that the team needed players they could keep in Winnipeg for more than a year or two. He dealt Pierre Luc Dubois to the Montreal Canadiens for Josh Anderson, Riley Kidney and Logan Mailloux.
The Edmonton Oilers had a much better showing. The McDavid – Draisaitl punch was too much for the Los Angeles Kings, and Jack Campbell watched while Stuart Skinner led the Oilers to a six-game series win.
Elsewhere, Dallas eliminated Seattle in five and Colorado dispensed with Minnesota in six games.
Eastern Conference Round Two
After eliminating the Lightning, the Leafs went from the frying pan into the fire to face the Boston Bruins. With Samsonov still out, Kallgren led the way. After splitting games in Boston, and then splitting games in Toronto, the Leafs were back at TD Garden for Game 5. Ryan O’ Reilly played overtime hero and they headed back to Toronto with a chance to end it all on home ice.
It wasn’t looking good for the Leafs. Down 4-1 at the second intermission, the fans had become quieter than their usual library pitch. Auston Matthews had been held off the score sheet since his untimely crease-clearing work sent Samsonov to sick bay. During the intermission, Brendan Shanahan made an uncharacteristic visit to the Leafs dressing room.
To this day, no one knows exactly what was said in that room, but there might have been mention of turning the tables on the Bruins. A third-period hat trick from Auston Matthews sent the game to overtime, and once again it was O’Reilly who notched the overtime winner to eliminate the mighty Bruins.
In the other Eastern Conference series, the Devils eliminated the Penguins in seven games, and the Eastern Conference Final was set.
Western Conference Round Two
Next up for the Edmonton Oilers was a rested and confident Vegas team. But rest became rust, and confidence became cockiness, and the Oilers were steely in their focus. Edmonton’s newfound defensive commitment held off the Golden Knights, and the Oilers advanced after just five games.
In the other series, the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars battled for seven games, five of which went to overtime. The Avalanche emerged as the winner, with Artturi Lehkonen scoring another series-winning goal, and the Western Conference Final was set.
NHL Draft Lottery
An exciting feature of the second round was the draft lottery. The Montreal Canadiens won the lottery, and would go on to draft Connor Bedard. The Florida Panthers also moved up several spots and the Habs were able to draft the highest ranked defenseman in the draft, David Reinbacher. Fans and pundits were ready to declare the Habs rebuild over.
Eastern Conference Final
The Toronto Maple Leafs and the New Jersey Devils faced off in the East. Having already worked their way through the Lightning and Bruins, the Leafs were confident. In six games, Auston Matthews was dominant, Samsonov returned to the net, and the Leafs pulled off the series win.
Toronto fans were delirious. Not one, but three won playoff series! Toronto City Council, acting without a mayor since John Tory stepped down, declared Game 1 of the Final a municipal holiday. Parade routes were being discussed at city hall.
Western Conference Final
The path to the final for the Edmonton Oilers suddenly hit an inordinately large speed bump – they would have to conquer the defending Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche to make it to the Final.
But the Avalanche were tired and playing through injuries, and Connor McDavid was otherworldly as is his custom, and the Oilers outlasted the Avalanche in a seven-game series win. In Game 7, McDavid scored four and Stuart Skinner held Colorado scoreless to end the series in a convincing fashion.
Stanley Cup Final
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance to drop the puck on Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, a series that featured just one National Anthem. It was the first time two Canadian teams had met in the Final since 1989 when the Calgary Flames defeated the Montreal Canadiens to win the Cup.
It was Matthews versus McDavid. Both players had already made their mark on this post-season, and McDavid was on pace to set scoring records.
Late in Game 4, with the Toronto Maple Leafs about to win and tie the series at two games apiece, a Michael Bunting collision with Skinner drove him from the game. Skinner was done for the season. Jack Campbell would have to finish the series for the Oilers.
They were down to the best two out of three, with Campbell and Samsonov facing off. In a shocking turn of events, Campbell was outstanding, stunning the Leafs and leading the Oilers to the series win.
Leafs fans finally saw the Stanley Cup hoisted at Scotiabank Arena… by Connor McDavid.
The Cup finally returned to Canada, this time to the Western Conference, and Ken Holland claimed the last laugh.
Many questions were asked about goaltending decisions, but they ended in a contract extension for Kyle Dubas, who was rumoured to be scouring the goalie market on the draft floor.
I know. I know. Relax folks. It’s just a fantasy!