Nick Foligno was 5 when his father made his longest playoff run with Toronto and he remembers it like it was yesterday.
The festive atmosphere in the streets after winning Game 7 to advance to the conference final. The questionable missed call against Wayne Gretzky and the searing pain of the Maple Leafs losing to Los Angeles in seven games, one step short of the 1993 final.
“I’ll never forget that run,” Foligno said after being traded to Toronto. “I’m looking forward to going on another one, being the next Foligno to do so.”
It wasn’t the Maple Leafs, but that year saw the last time a Canadian team hoisted the Stanley Cup when Montreal beat the Kings. This year provides a great opportunity to end the 28-year drought because the NHL’s divisional playoff format guarantees a team from Canada will be in the final four.
“You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself,” said Winnipeg’s Paul Stastny, who played on the 2018 Jets team that reached the Western Conference final. “But we do realize the opportunity that one of the final four is going to be a Canadian team.”
Stacked with talent, led by top goal-scorer Auston Matthews and scarred by years of playoff failures, Toronto is the top seed and favored to emerge from the North Division playoffs. The Maple Leafs open against the Canadiens, while MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers face Winnipeg as the playoffs begin this week.
“There should be plenty to be motivated about,” said Matthews, who scored 41 goals in 52 games. “We’d like to obviously play a long time here in the spring and the summer. We’re obviously focused on Montreal here, but I think everybody in this room is extremely motivated and really excited to get going.”
The Maple Leafs haven’t won a playoff series 2004, which predates the season-canceling lockout, and the franchise hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, which predates expansion beyond the league’s Original Six. First-round losses to Columbus, Boston (twice) and Washington over the past four years have only served as reminders for this core of how difficult it is to win this time of year.
“It’s not a good feeling, and you want to do what you can to not have that feeling again,” defenseman Morgan Rielly said. “We know how bad it feels to go home early, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
General manager Kyle Dubas added some size, grit and experience with Foligno and fellow forwards Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds, along with 2020 Cup-winning defenseman Zach Bogosian. The goal was to add some more willpower to the skill provided by Matthews, captain John Tavares, Mitch Marner and more.
“It’s a little more well-rounded,” said defenseman Jake Muzzin, who won with L.A. in 2014. “We brought in some guys who are a little grittier, some veteran guys who’ve been around and seen some stuff, and the young guys have learned.”
Toronto isn’t the only scene of some crash-course learning. Edmonton and Winnipeg each got bounced from the playoff bubble in the qualifying round last summer.
“This team’s in a different spot than we were even a year ago,” Oilers goaltender Mike Smith said. “But saying that, it’s playoff hockey. Winnipeg’s a great team. They’re not in the playoffs by accident, so it’s going to be a dogfight and anything can happen.”
McDavid’s response as Oilers captain was to post a league-best 105 points in 56 games. The Jets’ best — only? — chance of advancing is containing McDavid and reigning MVP Leon Draisaitl.
“I’m definitely very excited for the opportunity and excited for the challenge, and I know those guys are, as well,” Winnipeg center Mark Scheifele said. “It’s fun to play against the best. Both those guys prove day in and day out how they’re the best players in the world, and you have to be at your best every single shift against them or they’re going to make you pay.”
The same goes for Matthews against Montreal, which is expected to get starting goalie Carey Price back from a concussion. Price is aware of what Matthews can do, but he is also capable of being the X-factor for the Canadiens to spring an upset.
“That’s what makes the playoffs so much fun — it’s those opportunities,” Price said. “They don’t come as often as people think. Everybody wants to be that guy. It’s a chance to prove yourself.”
For one of these teams lies a chance to join the ’93 Canadiens in hockey history. Thornton, who has been in the NHL since 1997, is trying to lift the Cup for the first time.
“All you want is get into the final 16, and here we are,” Thornton said. “Everybody should have that chance, and we have a chance right now.