When the Calgary Flames meekly lost their sixth straight game in regulation Monday — the culmination of an epic stumble that finally and officially put the club out of its misery — Canada was left with just two potential entries for this spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
What a difference 12 months can make in the NHL.
Five of the league’s seven Canadian teams made the post-season last April, with two clinching second-round berths and one reaching the conference finals.
The Winnipeg Jets booked their ticket to the 2018 playoffs Sunday, while the Toronto Maple Leafs have been all but assured a spot for months in the top-heavy Atlantic Division.
Both fanbases will be hoping for long runs into June, but having just a pair clubs from north of the border in the playoff dance represents a brutal reality check in a season that kicked off with sky-high hopes.
The Edmonton Oilers, led by star centre Connor McDavid, were picked by many to end Canada’s Cup drought dating back to 1993 after a big step forward last spring. They not only made the playoffs for the first time since 2006, but also won a round and then took the Anaheim Ducks to seven games.
While not a darling of the analytics crowd, the Ottawa Senators managed to get within a goal of reaching the Cup final before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime, and seemed a good bet for at least a post-season return.
Even the teams that bowed out in the 2016-17 first round had plenty of reason for optimism.
Toronto’s young and exciting roster led by Auston Matthews had gained valuable experience in the franchise’s playoff return, the Flames had an talented core with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and the Montreal Canadiens were always viewed as a threat with Carey Price in goal.
Winnipeg missed out last season, but the Jets had a strong nucleus of Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers, among others.
The Vancouver Canucks weren’t expected to reach the playoffs after consecutive springs of discontent in a rebuild that never fully took hold, but with a new head coach there was renewed optimism of at least being in the conversation when the calendar flipped to March.
So how did it get to this point where only the Jets and Leafs remain standing?
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as much of a shock in a volatile league with so little room for error.
And remember, no Canadian teams made the playoffs two years ago — the first time that had happened in 46 years.
Edmonton, Ottawa and Montreal never found their footing this season.
The Oilers had a brutal start that saw them sitting 29th in the overall standings on Nov. 21, and while McDavid once again came as advertised, there were too many holes in the roster to rebound.
The Senators, meanwhile, occupied a playoff spot six weeks in, but entering Tuesday had the league’s worst record since.
Their spectacular fall could be blamed on a number of factors, including a team playing above its head in 2016-17, Erik Karlsson’s slow return from foot surgery, sub-par goaltending, the handling of Kyle Turris’s exit, and owner Eugene Melnyk’s sparring match with fans — one that included a threat to move the franchise on the eve of an anticipated outdoor game against Montreal.
Like the Oilers, the Canadiens had a poor start, but rebounded in November only to fall off a cliff as injuries and a roster devoid of enough difference makers struggled to create offence.
A crowded sick bay damaged any chance the Canucks had of staying relevant.
And then there’s the Flames, who were second in their division on Feb 8. and owned a Western Conference wild-card spot as late as Feb. 25 only to go into the ditch with a 3-10-1 run accented by that disastrous six-game losing streak to seal their fate.
Speaking at the NHL’s general manager meetings in Florida last week with his team’s chances already on life support, Calgary’s Brad Treliving said he wasn’t going to look at what went wrong until after the season.
“We’ve underperformed, no question,” Treliving said. “But I’m not ready to sit here and give last rites and do a post-mortem.”
That time is now just around the corner for Treliving and the GMs of four other Canadian teams.