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Canada's best

In 1993, the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Los Angeles Kings to win the Stanley Cup. This was not unexpected. This was the Canadiens' (the franchise) 24th championship and it was the Canadians' (all the franchises based in Canada) eighth Cup in a decade.

This is what spring was about in Canada; first a thaw, then a victory parade. This was the center of the game, home to the best players, the best teams, the most frenzied fans.

When the New York Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks in the finals the following year it was shrugged off. You can’t win them all, you know.

Actually, Canada can’t win any of them, it turns out.

In a sea change of fortunes, no Canadian hockey team has won the Stanley Cup in 14 forever years. It was a decade before one even returned to the Finals (Calgary, 2004, which lost to Tampa Bay in seven games).

There are droughts and then there are plagues. Combine the ice failures with dramatic changes to the way the NHL has been run under commissioner Gary Bettman and you can understand how a nation of generally congenial souls is so rabid right now about finding a winner, any winner.

The Canadian Broadcast Corporation even sponsored a contest called “Canada’s Best Chance” to rally support for the nation’s only chance, the Ottawa Senators.

“The battle for Stanley is down to four teams, and the Ottawa Senators are carrying the flag of our nation!” the network’s website declares. It went on to implore people who generally would like to see their Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Oilers, Flames and Canucks do nasty things with sticks to the Sens the rest of the year, to now root for Ottawa.

Steve Moskatov of Peterborough, Ont., won the other day. In 50 words or less he “described why the Senators are Canada’s Team.” Steve was probably more creative than just noting that all the other teams stink (none made it out of the second round).

Whatever his answer, he and a friend get a free trip to Ottawa for Wednesday’s Game 4. After the Sens beat the Buffalo Sabres 1-0 to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals Monday, “Canada’s Best Chance” can complete the first series sweep in franchise history and move a step closer to ending this long, long stretch of futility.

The Sens are legit. Even South of the Border that is obvious.

“They’ve been very good,” said a befuddled Buffalo coach, Lindy Ruff. “They’ve been very good the second half of the year. They’ve been very good the first two playoff series.”

Indeed, Ottawa is the hottest team in hockey right now and has been for much of the season. Since late December the Sens are a league-best 42-9-8. They are a sparkling 11-2 in the playoffs.

And by making a mockery out of what was expected to be a heated series with Buffalo, which merely had the best record in hockey this year, they are 60 minutes (game four is Wednesday) from being able to kick back and watch Anaheim and Detroit beat the heck out of each other in the West.

Considering both Calgary and Edmonton got to a Game 7 in 2004 and 2006 respectively, it isn’t fair to say that a Canadian team hasn’t had their chance at a Cup. But as good as the Oilers, and the Flames the season before, were in the playoffs, both were flawed, inconsistent clubs that caught fire in the spring.

Ottawa is built to win a title. It finished third in points in the East this year and was first a year ago. It is deep, experienced and possesses a suffocating defense that has emasculated the Sabres. On Monday, Buffalo got off just 15 shots. The Sabres are a pathetic 0-18 with a man advantage and Monday it was so bad they got just one shot in six power plays.

“It’s going to take something very special (to beat them),” grumbled Ruff postgame.

Maybe Anaheim and Detroit are something special. Time will tell. But you can understand why Canadians – at least the ones willing to forgive the rivalries of winter for the national pride of May – are overcome with excitement, passion and 50-words-or-less contests.

It’s been a tough stretch for Canadian teams. Quebec and Winnipeg left for the United States. There has been consistent mediocrity in most places. Toronto, despite its large-market status, can never seem to get out of its own way.

And Montreal has flat-lined. Back in 1993, to call Montreal the New York Yankees of hockey would be to have it backwards. The Yankees, with just 22 World Series championships then, were the Montreal Canadiens of baseball.

But since then, Montreal has won just three series.

And we won’t even get into the diabolical leadership of Bettman that many Canadians view as a personal, cultural affront. Everything pretty much bottomed out in 2005, when the Stanley Cup finals were lost due to labor strife.

So now there is Ottawa, now there is this movement to jump on any bandwagon that parks itself in the Great White North. Now the Ducks or Red Wings won’t just be taking on a team or a city, but a whole country, perhaps.

Not to mention a team that looks every bit capable of ending this stretch of misery once and for all.

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