By Damien Cox
If the eventual winners of the NHL’s North Division have any sense of history, they’ll travel to the third round of this spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs by dogsled. Or partly by ship. Or by train.
That’s how the Dawson City Klondikes did it back in 1905 when they decided to challenge the Ottawa Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup. It took them several weeks to make it from the Yukon all the way to the Canadian capital to mount their challenge.
And doesn’t this season feel just a little like those days?
Think about it. Some time in June, a winner of the North Division will emerge after two rounds of playoff competition. Given that the Canada-U.S. border may still be closed to all but essential travel, it seems likely the Canadian champion will have to head south and play the rest of the post-season in the United States.
Three American-based teams will have emerged as winners of their divisions. So it will be a challenge, in a sense, from the North winner to the other three. For the Cup, something no Canadian team has won since 1993.
Hopefully, the North winner will do better than the Klondikes. They got whupped.
That scenario, in the end, is what will make this COVID-shortened NHL season special and memorable. There’s already an intense playoff race brewing in the all-Canadian division, the likes of which we really haven’t seen for a good long time.
None of this going for the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. No wild cards. Top four teams in the division make it, straight up, and everyone else is out of luck.
Right now, Toronto and Edmonton are deadlocked in first place, and you already get the sense finishing first this season will matter more after years of having division titles devalued by conference playoff formats.
It could be a life-and-death battle for fourth, with Montreal trying to hold on. This could come down to the last game of the season — the fight for first and fourth — just like it used to.
Some of you might remember that crazy finish back in 1970 when the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers were fighting it out for fourth place in the East Division. Going into the final game for both teams, the Rangers had to not only win, but overcome a five-goal advantage the Canadiens had in the goals-for tiebreaker.
The Rangers beat Detroit 9-5. New York coach Emile Francis pulled goalie Eddie Giacomin late in the game to try and score more and overcome Montreal’s advantage. That left the Habs playing in Chicago. They fell behind 5-2, and goalie Rogie Vachon was pulled in an attempt to score more goals. It backfired. The Canadiens lost 10-2 and missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1948-49 season.
It feels like this playoff format could offer that kind of finish.
For future reference, the final Saturday of this regular season will feature the Leafs against the Canadiens, the Flames against the Canucks and the Senators playing the Jets. Imagine if Dave Tippett’s Oilers are sitting at home glued to the television on that final Saturday, waiting to find out their playoff fate.
That’s the beauty of this season, and this playoff scheme. If the season was over today, we’d be looking at the Leafs against Montreal and Edmonton taking on Winnipeg in the first round. The anticipation for those series would be enormous. By then, there might even be a few thousand fans allowed in each rink, augmenting the post-season atmosphere much better than the fake noise we’ve grown used to hearing.
Almost certainly, this will be the only time we’ll see this kind of format — barring another pandemic, of course. The NHL didn’t put a team in Seattle to leave that franchise without a natural rival in Vancouver just up the highway, one of many reasons why it seems almost certain this all-Canadian division is a one-time thing.
Finally, imagine the anticipation when the North winner heads south to face the American teams. There’s already plenty of debate over which of the four divisions is the toughest, and which is the weakest. There’s also been some whining from south of the border that members of the Canadian hockey media are behaving as if the 24 American teams don’t even exist, not paying the U.S. clubs enough attention.
You know what? They’re right. Generally speaking, we’re not paying much mind to the other divisions right now. Canadian hockey fans are pretty fixated on the Canadian teams locking horns every night. We’ll wait until the NHL semifinals to see what the American teams have to offer.
These divisions are separate hockey worlds. Really, each one should have its own Hart, Calder, Vezina and Norris trophy winners. There’s no overlap, so how can you possibly compare what Connor McDavid is doing for Edmonton with what Patrick Kane is accomplishing in Chicago? Or contrast Connor Hellebuyck’s play for Winnipeg this season with Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy since they have no opponents in common?
When the smoke clears in the North, there will be a definite Canadian champion, which actually could end up meaning more to many fans than competing for the Cup.
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Imagine if Winnipeg were to defeat the Leafs in the North Division final. Some Manitobans would crow over that victory for years to come. Whether the Jets went on to win the Cup might well be of secondary importance.
No matter what happens, whoever wins the North should be mindful of history. They should tip their caps to Dawson City.
Then get on their dogsleds and go.