They say, “hindsight is 20-20.” In sports, hindsight is often as blind as pregame predictions.
Take the first “NHLimpics” in Nagano in 1998. Pundits appeared to simply rank each nation’s roster by its collective number of NHL points scored. Sure, the Czech Republic had the greatest international goaltender of modern times in Dominik Hasek. Yes, Finland iced the best penalty-killing forward ever in Esa Tikkanen. And the Russians were blessed with large-ice surface experience and teamwork. Little did any of that matter next to numbers and arithmetic.
After the Czechs, Russians and Finns took the podium in Japan, what were North American “experts” supposed to blame their NHL-centric and lazy whiff on? Lack of good journalistic standards? Underestimating a HOF goalie? Nope. They blamed it on Rob Zaumner for being selected to Team Canada.
It wasn’t too long ago that NHL teams from Canada were considered too economically-disadvantaged to contend for Stanley Cups. No club from north of the border has grabbed the grail since Montreal in 1993, and no Canadian franchise has played in the Stanley Cup Finals in over a decade despite plenty of impressive regular-season records from teams hoping to break with the trend.
Skepticism remains even as clubs like the Winnipeg Jets have surged to the front of the pack in 2017-18 and ’18-19. Sports history – and hindsight – should teach us that results ultimately matter more than payroll. Yet it might take 2 or 3 championship runs for United States fans to label the sea change as anything more than a fluke.
Winnipeg lost to St. Louis in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals on Wednesday night. Given that the Jets led the Central Division for much of the season, there are probably a few fans thinking “here we go again” with a Canadian club letting everyone down after a promising campaign.
But a look at the current NHL landscape tells a different story. All 3 teams from Canada are casting long shadows over the postseason bracket. The Jets, the Calgary Flames, and the Toronto Maple Leafs each have solid chances to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
Will this weekend’s playoff results feel like a coup for Canada?
Flames Asserting Dominance over Avalanche
Far and away the most lopsided Game 1 drilling came in Calgary on Thursday night, as the Pacific Division champion Flames took apart visiting Colorado.
The Avs raced to make the playoffs in early spring but do not possess a proven playoff-worthy goaltender. That can make an entire squad anxious against a roster of Calgary’s caliber.
Once a Mark Giordano-led blueline got Colorado’s attack out of whack, young American sniper Matthew Tkachuk took over the proceedings.
Flames GK Mike Smith will gun for his 2nd shut-out of the series on Saturday night.
Maple Leafs Win on the Underdog ML
Toronto also enjoyed an excellent regular season, but because the Leafs play in the Eastern Conference where the front-runners piled up points all year, the darlings of metropolitan Canuck-ville didn’t get home-ice advantage in their opening season with the Boston Bruins.
They didn’t get a favorite’s moneyline, either. Bookmakers had Toronto as about a 1.5-to-1 underdog headed into Game 1 at TD Garden on Thursday night.
No matter. The Leafs are blessed with an excellent, underrated goaltender in Frederik Andersen of Denmark, who stopped 37 of 38 shots as Toronto counterattacked and bothered the Bruins throughout a surprise 4-1 victory.
Perimeter shots can be a double-edged sword for a talented hockey team, setting-up opposing rushes and keeping a hot goalie from growing cold. Brad Marchand and other Bruin forwards must get more selective with shot attempts and put traffic in front of Andersen, or the Danes will be missing their #1 GK at the World Championships in May.
Blues Hum Along vs Winnipeg Buzzsaw
Will an upstart from the Gateway City break the Canadian momentum in the 1st round?
It can be argued that the St. Louis Blues are not a true underdog against the Winnipeg Jets in a playoff series. The Blues played excellent hockey in the 2nd half of the season, and the 1-2 punch of Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’ Reilly leads a crew of forwards that can score with power or finesse.
The Blue Note squeaked-out a 2-1 win in Game 1 on Wednesday, and there could easily be 6 more games to come between the 2 proud franchises.
St. Louis will be a “sexy” moneyline pick when the clubs meet for Game 2 in Manitoba on Friday night.
But the Jets are still homestanding, and may be considered a slight favorite to prevail in 7 games if the Blues’ momentum is paused before the series heads southward.
My current series-outcome predictions are Flames-in-4, Maple Leafs-in-7, and Blues-in-7.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.