Jason Pominville

No Canada: Nation’s Stanley Cup drought approaches 26 years

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Whenever Eric Desjardins reunites with his 1993 Montreal Canadiens teammates, the topic of Canada’s ongoing Stanley Cup drought doesn’t come up in conversation.

”We don’t see it that way. Canadian team, American team, it’s just that we were part of the NHL,” the former star defenseman said. ”Sure, it’s been a while in Montreal, but we don’t really talk about the 26 years.”

That’s right. With the NHL playoffs set to open Wednesday, it will be going on 26 years since the Canadiens – or any other Canadian team – brought home the Cup.

Desjardins, who enjoyed a 17-year career split between Montreal and Philadelphia, chalks up the drought to NHL expansion across the United States and league-wide parity ushered in with the introduction of the salary cap in 2005.

”It’s supposed to be our national sport, and we’re supposed to be the best at it,” said Desjardins, who’s from Montreal. ”But now, the way the league’s structured I think it could go anywhere. … I think anybody can win it now. And I think it makes it more interesting.”

Still, the 49-year-old acknowledged a quarter century between Cups in Canada is far too long, and Desjardins can see himself rooting for any Canadian team making it to this year’s Final.

”If the Final’s between Pittsburgh and Winnipeg, yeah I would root, even though I like Pittsburgh,” he said. ”But yeah, against Calgary, Winnipeg, I would cheer for the Canadian team.”

Canada’s Cup hopes this spring rest on three teams – Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto – to end the drought. Of course, most current Canadian-born NHL players weren’t alive to see Desjardins and Co. celebrate their five-game series win over the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings.

Sabres forward Jason Pominville is among the exceptions.

He was 10 when his hometown Habs won, and Pominville still vividly recalls Game 2 of the series in which Desjardins scored all three goals in Montreal’s 3-2 overtime win after the Canadiens lost the opener.

”I remember watching that and celebrating in my living room, and fist-pumping when he scored,” Pominville said. ”I was a big fan of Gretzky, too. But when you’re in Montreal, it’s tough not to root for that team when you’re growing up.”

In Montreal, there was a time when winning the Cup was considered a birthright. The Canadiens still top the list with 24 championships, 23 coming after the NHL was founded in 1917.

And yet, Montreal hasn’t reached the Final since ’93, while only five Canadian teams have done so; Vancouver is the only one to make two appearances during the drought, in 1994 and 2011.

Then there are the Maple Leafs, who haven’t reached the Final since winning the Cup in 1967, the last year of the NHL’s Original Six era.

The low point might have been the 2016 playoffs, the first since 1970 to not feature a Canadian team

This was not always the case. From 1927 to 1995, the lengthiest stretch for a Canadian team not appearing in the Final was two years. It last happened in 1991-92, when Pittsburgh won consecutive championships by beating Minnesota and Chicago.

As for Canada’s lengthiest Cup drought before the ’93 Habs, it was a six-year span from 1936-41.

The current drought has gone on for so long, former executive-turned broadcaster Brian Burke said the math simply doesn’t add up.

”It doesn’t make sense. There’s 31 teams, so seven out of 31 teams, a Canadian team should win every four-and-a-half years,” said Burke, who has worked in the front offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary.

The problem, Burke said, is Canadian teams are at a disadvantage because many players don’t want to play north of the border for several reasons.

The first, he said, is a lack of privacy and the amount of pressure placed on players to win north of the border. Burke said a large number of players, including Canadians, often list all seven Canadian teams on the no-trade clauses of their contracts.

”Even in Calgary, we had our lists where players got to put 10 teams on a no-trade list, and all the Canadian teams were on those lists,” he said.

The second issue is Canada’s taxation rate.

”There’s no privacy. Horrible personal criticisms on social media, and then you take home way less money, so it’s pretty easy,” Burke said.

He can only imagine how much national attention will be paid to the next Canadian team to win it all.

”The next GM that wins a Cup in Canada, they’ll be naming schools after him, and streets,” Burke said.

Don’t think Flames GM Brad Treliving hasn’t given ending the drought some thought.

”Hey, that’s all you dream about,” he said, while attempting to keep the pressures of winning in Canada in perspective.

”You got to bed at night and it’s no different than any other manager or any other person involved in the game: That’s what you want to accomplish” Treliving said. ”If you really put the energy and the effort into doing the right things, the results will come.”

Having lost in the Final twice, Desjardins can’t remember a sweeter moment than winning the Cup.

”It’s a reward that’s indescribable,” Desjardins said. ”When you win, you can share it. You share it with your teammates, you share it with the coaching staff.”

In Canada, it will be shared with an entire nation.

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AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

What to watch for in final days of 2018-19 NHL season

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There is only playoff spot still up for grabs in the NHL’s playoff race, and it could be decided as early as Friday night if the Columbus Blue Jackets can beat the New York Rangers. While that would be somewhat disappointing as it relates to drama and excitement for the final day of the regular season, there will still be plenty of big storylines to watch.

What should you be paying attention to? Let’s take a look.

1. Columbus just needs one win. Everything is sitting right there for the Blue Jackets. All they have to do is win one game against either the sixth-worst team in the league (the Rangers on Friday) or the worst team in the league (the Ottawa Senators on Saturday). That is it. That is all they need to do. If they manage to miss the playoffs (which they would do with if they fail to collect two points over those two games and if Montreal beats Toronto) it would probably be one of the most stunning end-of-season collapses in league history. No pressure!

2. Tampa Bay looks to tie the NHL’s single season win record. They can’t break the record, but if the Lightning beat the Boston Bruins they would win their 62nd game of the season, tying them with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in a single season. They are currently one of just three teams to have ever won at least 60 in a single season.

3. More Nikita Kucherov milestones. Assuming they do not rest him, Nikita Kucherov would need four points to become the first player since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr during the 1995-96 season to record at least 130 points in a season. He is also four assists away from 90 for the season. While that seems like a tall order, keep in mind he already has eight four-point games this season, including one four-assist game.

4. Blues try to go from worst to first. In the first week of January the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the Western Conference. With a win on Saturday, combined with losses by the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, they would finish the season in first place in the Central Division. That is a remarkable turnaround in a very short period of time.

5. Leon Draisaitl and John Tavares shoot for 50. You have to go all the way back to the 2011-12 season to find the last time the NHL had multiple 50-goal scorers in the same season (Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin did it) but we have a chance to see it happen again this season. Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl needs just one to become the first Oilers player since Wayne Gretzky scored 62 during the 1986-87 season (that is, if you exclude Craig Simpson’s 1987-88 season, where he only scored 43 of his goals as a member of the Oilers). His season has been kind of lost in the shadows of another monster year from Connor McDavid and overlooked because of the rest of the team’s struggles, but he has been sensational. Tavares, if he plays in what is a meaningless game for Toronto, would need to score three goals against the Montreal Canadiens to record his first 50-goal season. There have only been seven 50-goal performances since the start of the 2010-11 season, and four of them belong to Alex Ovechkin.

6. Four players are within reach of 100 points. Kucherov, McDavid, Draisaitl, Patrick Kane and Brad Marchand are already at the century mark, and with big games in their regular season finales Sidney Crosby (98 points), Johnny Gaudreau (98 points), Nathan MacKinnon (98 points), and Stamkos (97 points) could also get there. That is, of course, assuming they play. Pittsburgh (Crosby) and Colorado (MacKinnon) are the only players on teams that can improve their place in the standings, so it is possible Gaudreau or Stamkos could be held out. Florida’s Aleksander Barkov is the next closest player with 94 points, but would need an incredible effort to get to 100 on the season.

7. The potential for some finales. While there is no indication that he is going to retire, the reality is that Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo is 40 years old and his future with the team (or in the NHL) could very much be in doubt. With the Wild missing the playoffs and a new general manager in charge, it is possible Bruce Boudreau could be coaching his final game in Minnesota. Jason Pominville, a long-time fan favorite in Buffalo, could be appearing in his final game as a member of the Sabres.

8. The draft lottery watch. The Ottawa Senators are locked in to the NHL’s worst record meaning their first-round pick (which now belongs to the Colorado Avalanche) will have the best odds to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But several other teams could see their odds change depending on the outcome of their remaining games. The big ones to watch are the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils. Entering play on Friday the Kings have the second worst record in the league, sitting just one point behind the Devils. A Devils regulation loss, combined with one Kings win, would see New Jersey’s lottery odds jump up from 11.5 percent to 13.5 percent.

9. The Nichushkin and Rieder watch. Tobias Rieder has played 66 games for the Edmonton Oilers this season and not scored a goal. Valeri Nichushkin has played 57 games for the Dallas Stars and not scored a goal OR taken a penalty. Will one of them get a goal? At least let Rieder get one after he had to take all of the blame for the Oilers’ struggles this season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Crawford, Grabner, Lehner among 2019 Masterton Trophy nominees

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The 31 nominees for the 2019 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy have been announced. The award, which is given to the players “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” will be handed out at the NHL awards show in June in Las Vegas.

The 31 nominees are selected by each Professional Hockey Writers Association chapter.

Anaheim Ducks: Patrick Eaves
Arizona Coyotes: Michael Grabner
Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara
Buffalo Sabres: Jason Pominville
Calgary Flames: Mark Giordano
Carolina Hurricanes: Curtis McElhinney
Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
Colorado Avalanche: Carl Soderberg
Columbus Blue Jackets: Nick Foligno
Dallas Stars: Taylor Fedun
Detroit Red Wings: Niklas Kronwall
Edmonton Oilers: Andrej Sekera
Florida Panthers: Derek MacKenzie
Los Angeles Kings: Jack Campbell
Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter
Montreal Canadiens: Andrew Shaw
Nashville Predators: Rocco Grimaldi
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider
New York Islanders: Robin Lehner
New York Rangers: Brendan Smith
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Elliott
Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Cullen
St. Louis Blues: Jay Bouwmeester
San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ryan Callahan
Toronto Maple Leafs: Tyler Ennis
Vancouver Canucks: Jacob Markstrom
Vegas Golden Knights: Ryan Carpenter
Washington Capitals: Brooks Orpik
Winnipeg Jets: Dmitry Kulikov

Brian Boyle, then of the New Jersey Devils, won the award last season after his battle with chronic myeloid leukemia.

All very good choices, and it’ll be tough to narrow it down to three finalists. You have to believe Lehner will be one of the three considering his season and what he’s overcome. After that? Crawford, Grabner, Foligno, and Campbell could also find themselves heading to Las Vegas in late June.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Ennis’ hat trick leads Leafs; Oilers rally vs. Sabres

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THREE STARS

1. Tyler Ennis, Toronto Maple Leafs

Ennis recorded his first career hat trick during the Maple Leafs’ 6-2 win over the Calgary Flames. Toronto jumped on Calgary with a 3-0 first period lead as Ennis picked up his first two of the night in a span of 7:25. His 12th goal of the season early in the third period sealed the three-goal night, much to the delight of the large number of Leafs fans inside the Saddledome. Zach Hyman got in on the scoring fun with a pair as Mitch Marner had a hand in both of his goals and later added one of his own.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

Draisaitl extended his point streak to 11 games with a shorthanded goal and an assist during a 4-3 Oilers win over the Buffalo Sabres. Edmonton fell behind 3-1 after the first period before storming back with three goals in a 3:26 span late in the second period. Draisaitl recorded his 42nd assist of the season on Darnell Nurse‘s tying goal. He now has 17 goals in his last 19 games.

3. Mikko Koskinen, Edmonton Oilers

After a rough first period, Koskinen settled down and made 24 saves over the final 40 minutes to give him 35 saves on the night. Koskinen has now won his last three starts, two of which required him to stop at least 35 shots.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NIGHT

Draisaitl tallied his 41st of the season shorthanded via this pretty play with Connor McDavid:

Oh, no, Jason Pominville:

FACTOIDS OF THE NIGHT

• “Buffalo dropped to 2-7-1 in its past 10, and is 13-22-6 since a franchise-record-matching 10-game win streak in November.” (AP)

SCORES
Oilers 4, Sabres 3
Maple Leafs 6, Flames 2

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sabres’ Jason Pominville blocks own attempt at tying goal

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The Buffalo Sabres blew a 3-1 first period lead and fell 4-3 to the Edmonton Oilers Monday night in front of a frustrated KeyBank Center.

Adding to the home crowd’s growing frustrations with the Sabres was Jason Pominville‘s failed attempt to tie the game with under four minutes to go in the third period.

Pominville snuck behind the Oilers’ defense and positioned himself just to the side of Mikko Koskinen‘s crease in prime scoring position. Brandon Montour‘s pass found the veteran forward perfectly, but the finish didn’t go so well. His first attempt went off the heel of the blade but was moving toward the empty net for the equalizer, and that’s when Pominville’s follow through actually prevented the puck from crossing the goal line.

Brutal. Just brutal, and totally sums up the Sabres’ second half of the season. With the loss, Buffalo is now 2-7-1 in their last 10 games and 13-22-6 since that November 10-game win streak that seems forever ago at this point.

“I can probably take 100 shots from that area and it might never happen, but it happened tonight,” Pominville said afterward. “It was clearly going in and just kind of double touched it on my way back. It was just a tough feeling when you see it going in and then all of a sudden coming out.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.