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Canada’s Stanley Cup Hopes Rest on Leafs, Flames, Oilers


It is a rule that spring comes to Canada erratically, a few mild days followed by a foot of snow followed by rain followed by a day so hot you would swear it was summer, usually followed by sleet and more snow. On the day I was born in April my mother needed a heavy winter coat on the way to the hospital, and by the time I had arrived in the afternoon it was hot enough to go to the beach.

Something else occurred that same spring, but unlike the unpredictable weather, it has not happened since. In May 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs won their thirteenth — and last — Stanley Cup. Around this time each year, the city of Toronto gets a little twitchy. Occasionally the Raptors provide a distraction — but not this year. They’re down three games against the 76ers.

The N.H.L. playoffs begin May 2, and as of this writing, the picture looks like this.

Canadian fans currently have three rooting choices: the Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. The Vancouver Canucks might make it. The Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets will not.

If the playoffs started today, the Oilers would face the Los Angeles Kings; the Flames would play the Nashville Predators; and the Maple Leafs would play the Tampa Bay Lightning, winner of the last two Stanley Cups.

That doesn’t sound hopeful. But the Leafs have been enjoying good times, largely because of the American center Auston Matthews, who has put together his best season yet. The Flames have Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. The Oilers feature Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

In hockey, it is most fun to follow the stars, especially during the playoffs. But star players have not always ensured playoff success. The Maple Leafs haven’t won a championship in 55 years — and they haven’t even won a playoff round since 2004.

McDavid, for all his otherworldly talent, has won only a single playoff series (in 2017) and, with the exception of a first-round loss in 2021, the Oilers have missed the playoffs in every other season since losing in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006.

The Calgary Flames haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

Cue the most repeated and moped-upon fact around this time of year: The Stanley Cup has not been won by a Canadian team since Montreal did so in 1993. It’s all a little grim.

Hockey is a regional interest. The province of Alberta will divide neatly, and rabidly, between the Oilers and Flames, but Toronto presents a problem for those outside its sprawling borders. The Leafs, like the New York Yankees, are easy to love and easy to loathe, depending on your postal code and generational loyalties.

One solution is to pick a team based in the United States with a fantastic Canadian player, a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Sidney Crosby, in his 17th season with the team that drafted him first overall in 2005 as the league emerged from a lockout and a canceled 2004-05 season, has quietly been having one of the best seasons in the N.H.L.

I spent Crosby’s rookie year in Pittsburgh to follow a kid saddled with putting the salary-cap era of hockey on the map. His team won only 22 games, but he led the Penguins with 102 points. Greatness was not far-off. Crosby won his first Stanley Cup in 2009, and two more in 2016 and 2017. Packed between championships have been numerous Hart, Conn Smythe, Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies. On Feb. 15, Crosby scored his 500th career goal, becoming only the second active player to reach the mark and the 46th in N.H.L. history.

A few days later, I saw him in Toronto when the Penguins played the Leafs. It was our first lengthy conversation since his rookie season. Now 34, he was relaxed and reflective, and excited about the team’s playoff chances.

“I have a great appreciation for being able to play as long as I have,” he said. “It’s a privilege. Don’t get me wrong, I want to play a lot longer, but the more you play the more you understand that it’s not easy.”

Yet he still makes it look easy. Crosby, with 29 goals (nine of them game winners) and 52 assists through 65 games, is having a remarkable season — without fanfare, which has all gone Alex Ovechkin’s way as he climbs the career goals list.

Crosby, whose 1.25 points-per-game average edges Ovechkin, continues to prove his longevity in a sport that takes an incredible physical toll. He remains the best 200-foot player in the game, and one of its most creative playmakers.

Ahead of the playoffs, I will have much more from my conversation with Crosby, and insight into what has made him such an enduring and dominant player 17 seasons into his career.

The New York Times will provide coverage of the N.H.L. playoffs, with an early focus on the Rangers-Penguins series (as the current matchup stands) in the Eastern Conference.

If you are looking for a bandwagon apart from the Flames, Oilers and Maple Leafs, it would be wise to never bet against Crosby.

I asked him what milestone is next. “A Stanley Cup,” he said.

This week’s Trans Canada section was compiled by Vjosa Isai.

A native of Ancaster, Ontario, Shawna Richer lives in Toronto and is an assistant sports editor for The New York Times. She has spent more than 25 years as a sports journalist in Canada and is the author of “The Kid: A Season With Sidney Crosby and the New N.H.L.” Follow her on Twitter at @richershawna.

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