April 11 (Reuters) - After last year's shutout, when no Canadian NHL team reached the Stanley Cup playoffs, five clubs from the birthplace of hockey made the 16-team tournament this season with much to prove.
The Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs in the East, and Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames in the West all reached the playoffs, but their paths are challenging as the top three teams in each conference are U.S.-based.
Yet the underachieving Capitals have yet to capitalise on their seeding, and Ovechkin has not advanced past the second round of the playoffs despite the Russian's wondrous ability.
Washington open their first-round best-of-seven series on Thursday against a promising, young Toronto team making their first trip to the playoffs since 2013.
"Experience only helps if you use it in the right way. Hopefully we do," said Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.
The defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins are a close second pick to emerge from the East with Sidney Crosby coming off another strong season.
The Penguins meet the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday.
Montreal, who will face the New York Rangers in a battle of Original Six franchises in their series, may have the best chance of the Canadian clubs to advance from the East.
The Canadiens, who lost in six games to the Rangers in the 2014 East finals, won their division and boast Olympic gold medallist Carey Price in goal.
Montreal are the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup, 24 years ago in 1993.
CHICAGO LIKE ODDS
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are hoping the odds favour them once again as the Western Conference's top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks chase another odd-year Stanley Cup after triumphs in 2015 and 2013.
The Blackhawks, invigorated by contributions from young players, open their series against the Nashville Predators on Thursday.
"You have to come in here with the mindset that you want to win and you can just tell right when you walk into the locker room that these guys are winners," said forward Nick Schmaltz. "They know what it takes."
Chicago's top threat in the West could be the Minnesota Wild, who set a franchise record with a 106-point season. They open against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday.
Lying in ambush could be the Edmonton Oilers, who have been revived by Connor McDavid, 20, and take on the San Jose Sharks starting on Wednesday.
McDavid, the top draft pick two years ago, is already showing signs of fulfilling his vast potential. He led the league with 100 points this season and is a frontrunner to be named the most valuable player.
"He’s been driving the bus all year for us, and we’re just following behind him," said Oilers forward Drake Caggiula.
A champion will be crowned in mid June after one team navigates four gruelling best-of-seven rounds. (Editing by Frank Pingue)