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NHL

A year later, Canadian teams fueling playoff optimism

By Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun

Senators defenceman Dion Phaneuf (right) interrupts Oilers forward Zack Kassian (left) on a breakaway during second period NHL action at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Oct. 30, 2016. Six of seven Canadian teams are either holding a playoff spot or very close to one with five weeks left in the season. (Ian Kucerak/Postmedia Network)

Senators defenceman Dion Phaneuf (right) interrupts Oilers forward Zack Kassian (left) on a breakaway during second period NHL action at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Oct. 30, 2016. Six of seven Canadian teams are either holding a playoff spot or very close to one with five weeks left in the season. (Ian Kucerak/Postmedia Network)

The official Hockey Day in Canada was held on Feb. 18. It apparently took another two weeks for this country’s NHL franchises to truly celebrate the occasion.

Fourteen days after the nation’s passion for the sport was embraced in a coast-to-coast love-in, Canadian NHL teams went a perfect 5-0 on Saturday, outscoring opponents by a combined goal total of 21-10.

With the trade deadline mercifully in the rear-view mirror, those results certainly can be viewed as a rallying point as teams kick off the stretch drive in the quest of post-season berths. And when it comes to Canadian teams, what a difference 11 months makes.

As of Monday, the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames will find themselves sitting in playoff spots while the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets will be within three points, if not closer.

And while the post-season aspirations of the Vancouver Canucks continue to exist despite the odds, fans on the Left Coast finally have a rebuild they can embrace, one led by young Bo Horvat. With management showing confidence in a kid who’s still just 21 by stitching an alternate captain’s “A” on his jersey for the game in Los Angeles Saturday, Horvat responded with a three-assist performance in a 4-3 upset of the host Kings.

The concept of six of seven teams having a fair shot at qualifying for the Stanley Cup dance is such a far cry from the gloom-and-doom vibe last April when the playoffs started without a single Canadian franchise taking part. As documented in Postmedia’s six-part investigative series at the time entitled NO CANADA, it marked the first time in 46 years that the NHL postseason did not feature one Canadian-based representative.

In Montreal, the fresh voice of new coach Claude Julien and the presence of a healthy Carey Price have the Habs back in form. In Toronto, the learning curve of rookies like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander has accelerated quicker than expected. Ottawa’s mandate of being tighter defensively is reality thanks to coach Guy Boucher. In Winnipeg, inconsistency in goal earlier this season now seems to be offset by a cache of wonderful young talent led by Calder Trophy candidate Patrik Laine. In Calgary, the one-time goaltending issues seem to be ironing themselves out. In Edmonton, the magnificent Connor McDavid is being, well, the magnificent Connor McDavid. And in Vancouver, Horvat has quickly become the face of the Canucks' promising youth movement.

As we buckle ourselves in for what promises to be a wild and wacky final five weeks of the season, here’s a brief look at what’s gone right for the seven Canadian teams -- and what they each must do to maintain it.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

Now familiar with Julien’s swarming defensive scheme, the Habs have won five consecutive games. GM Marc Bergevin’s trade deadline additions are paying dividends, with defenceman Jordie Benn scoring a goal and forward Steve Ott chipping in with an assist in the Canadiens impressive 4-1 win over the host New York Rangers Saturday. And those questions about what’s wrong with Price, well, they’ve disappeared.

OTTAWA SENATORS

Give GM Pierre Dorion credit. Boucher’s hiring last summer has remedied the team’s one-time leaky defensive issues. Meanwhile Dorion’s deadline additions already are chipping in. Former Canuck Alex Burrows scored twice in his Sens debut Thursday, while speedy journeyman Victory Stalberg had a key goal in the Senators 3-2 win over Columbus Saturday.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Mike Babcock’s young team received a dose of reality on the West Coast, where it accrued just one of a possible six points. Nevertheless the Leafs are still in the thick of the playoff race. Deadline acquisition Brian Boyle has already had a positive effect, both in the room and the faceoff circle.

WINNIPEG JETS

What’s not to like? In a breakout season for youngsters Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers, the uber-skilled Laine started play Sunday second in the NHL’s goal scoring race with 32, just two behind Sidney Crosby. Lost in all the Calder talk is this kid’s remarkable bid as a teenager to win the Rocket Richard Trophy. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck came within 15.4 seconds of recording his second straight shutout in Winnipeg’s 6-1 mashing of Colorado Saturday and is vital to the Jets’ chase for a playoff berth.

CALGARY FLAMES

Including play versus the New York Islanders on Sunday, the Flames had allowed two or fewer goals in eight of nine previous games, going 8-1 in that span. Goalie Brian Elliott’s overcoming of early season’s struggles has been a key to the turnaround.

EDMONTON OILERS

A debate during one of the trade deadline TV shows Wednesday featured a couple of analysts suggesting they might trade McDavid for Matthews straight up. No disrespect to Matthews but no way. McDavid’s highlight reel goal in the first period of Edmonton’s 4-3 win over Detroit Saturday once again showed that he is the next great thing in the sport, if not already. With goalie Cam Talbot already at 33 victories and the next seven games at home, the Oilers are poised for a first post-season appearance in 11 years.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

The Canucks still harbour faint hopes of a playoff berth, Saturday’s victory over the Kings pulling them to within seven points of the final wild card slot as of Sunday. But the optimism in Vancouver goes beyond the immediate future. By dealing the likes of Jannik Hansen to San Jose, the return of young talent like flashy prospect Nikolay Goldobin offers the promise of better days ahead, especially if his breakaway goal against the Kings is any indication. As for Horvat, the framework is in place for him to develop into a team leader for years to come.

mzeisberger@postmedia.com

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CANADIAN CLUB

As Canada’s seven NHL franchises enter play Monday, here is a brief breakdown of their remaining schedules. Of note: of these teams, only the Sens will play the majority of their games on the road.

MONTREAL CANADIENS
Games Remaining: 16
Home: 8  
Road: 8

OTTAWA SENATORS
Games Remaining; 19
Home: 7
Road: 12

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Games Remaining: 18
Home: 10
Road: 8

WINNIPEG JETS
Games Remaining: 16
Home: 9
Road: 7

CALGARY FLAMES
Games Remaining: 16
Home: 9
Road: 7

EDMONTON OILERS
Games Remaining: 17
Home: 12
Road: 5

VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Games Remaining: 17
Home: 9
Road: 8