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NHL PREVIEW:Habs look like Canada's best hope to end long Stanley Cup drought

The Canadian Press
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Montreal Canadiens playerscelebrate after defeating the New York Rangers 3-2 in overtime in Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Eastern Conference finals, Thursday, May 22, 2014, in New York. During last season's playoffs, Canadiens players couldn't help but wonder how Montreal might respond if the team won the Stanley Cup. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Kathy Willens Author: The Hockey News

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NHL PREVIEW:Habs look like Canada's best hope to end long Stanley Cup drought

The Canadian Press
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During last season's playoffs, Canadiens players couldn't help but wonder how Montreal might respond if the team won the Stanley Cup.

"The way the city reacts when we win one playoff round, it's almost shocking," Max Pacioretty said. "We joke around like, 'Could you imagine winning a Stanley Cup there and what the reaction would be?'"

P.K. Subban has thought about it.

"It's scary," the 2013 Norris Trophy winner said. "It's scary in a great way. How passionate those fans are, the province, it's scary."

Oddsmakers think the current landscape across Canada is scary in a bad way and are betting that the country's Stanley Cup drought will extend to 21 seasons. But among the seven teams, the Canadiens have the best odds of ending it at 18 to 1, according to the online sportsbook Bodog.ca, which is no surprise given they were the only club to make last season's playoffs.

The Vancouver Canucks (33-1), Toronto Maple Leafs (40-1), Edmonton Oilers (50-1), Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets (66-1) and Calgary Flames (75-1) aren't inspiring much confidence to bring the trophy back to Canada for the first time since the Habs did it in 1993.

Montreal came the closest in last year's playoffs by reaching the Eastern Conference final before losing to the New York Rangers. Beating the rival Boston Bruins to get there was what Pacioretty called the best feeling he's had in hockey to this point.

Pacioretty knows winning a Cup would be the pinnacle. The stage is set for the Habs to at least be in the running to get back to the same spot with goaltender Carey Price healthy, Subban locked up to a long-term contract and the East looking as wide open as ever.

Before now, the longest title drought in franchise history was 12 seasons, between 1931 and 1944.

Subban, now one of the Habs' four alternate captains along with Pacioretty, centre Tomas Plekanec and defenceman Andrei Markov, doesn't feel the pressure of 1993, but definitely has since 2010.

"I think we're responsible for the time that you're here," Subban said. "You're responsible for the time that you wear the jersey to do everything you can to help the team win."

Despite wholesale changes—a new president in Trevor Linden, general manager in Jim Benning and coach in Willie Desjardins—the Canucks don't think they're far off from being back in contention.

"We felt like we made some good changes in the summer and got a little bit stronger, got a little bit younger, got deeper," defenceman Kevin Bieksa said. "But the same pieces are still in place that were successful two years ago and for the five, six years prior to that."

Daniel and Henrik Sedin will begin new four-year contracts at the age of 34, but they're two of just six players left from the 2011 team that lost to the Bruins in the Cup final. Bieksa, Alex Edler, Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen are the others.

Gone are Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo, but the Canucks signed Ryan Miller to bring back some goaltending stability.

"It solidifies us," Bieksa said of Miller. "To have an experienced guy who's been around, who's not going to get flustered, he's won a lot of big games, he's played on the big stage, that helps us."

As much as the Canucks' season went off the rails in 2013-14, the Leafs had a bigger thud by losing eight straight and 12 of their final 14 to fall out of playoff contention. Since, there has been much more talk about changing the "culture" in Toronto than about 1967 or anything about the Cup.

When commissioner Gary Bettman said that a hypothetical second team in Toronto would struggle to gain a foothold if the Leafs won the Cup, new "Hockey Night In Canada" host George Stroumboulopoulos said what most were thinking: "That's a big hypothetical."

It might be difficult for Leafs players to think that far ahead, given the day-to-day spotlight they're in.

"It's hard for our players in this market to go down the street and not be noticed," coach Randy Carlyle said. "There's a tremendous amount of scrutiny that takes place."

The Leafs look like the biggest wild card in the NHL, let alone in Canada, because of sweeping changes in the front office and on Carlyle's staff. There might be enough talent to be a legitimate playoff team or enough problems that another top-10 draft pick is on the horizon.

Edmonton has had six straight years of top-10 picks and no playoff appearances to show for it. The core of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hasn't been able to make that leap.

"It is frustrating having to answer 'Why?' or 'What is the next step?' all the time, but that's just the way it goes when you're on a team that's done the way we have," Hall said. "It's all about having a year that lives up to expectations. Whatever they may be, there's no set-in-stone expectation."

It's certainly not the Cup for the Oilers. Not yet.

The same can be said for the Senators, who are now without long-term captain Daniel Alfredsson and last-season captain Jason Spezza. Defenceman Erik Karlsson remains, and he said recently this is the best pre-season vibe he has felt in Ottawa.

"I have no doubt that we're going to be a better team this year than we were last year," Karlsson said.

In order to defy the odds and return to the playoffs, Ottawa will need a strong season from goaltenders Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner.

Goaltending remains a question for the Jets, who haven't made the playoffs in three seasons since the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta. Among goalies with at least 100 games played over that time, starter Ondrej Pavelec has the lowest save percentage (.904), and his backup is unproven rookie Michael Hutchinson.

Just making the playoffs in an impossibly difficult Western Conference would be a boon for the Jets. Winger Blake Wheeler would love to get in for the fans who pack MTS Centre night after night but knows he and his teammates can't assume all that pressure.

"You can't really do it for everyone," Wheeler said. "You can't really put a city on your shoulders, that's just too much. We'll let the Maple Leafs and Canadiens put the country on their shoulders. We'll worry about ourselves."

That would be a good perspective for the Flames, too. The rebuild is underway with the likes of Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, but there are still internal expectations for the veterans who remain.

"We want to get significantly better,'' centre Matt Stajan said. "We're going to push to climb the standings and try to get into the playoffs. Anything less is a failure for all of us."

When it comes to winning a Cup during his time in Montreal, Subban doesn't consider failure an option.

"(When I was drafted) in 2007 I made a promise to the Montreal Canadiens and their fan base," Subban said. "Minimum eight (more) years to fulfil that promise."

—With files from Donna Spencer in Calgary

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NHL PREVIEW:Habs look like Canada's best hope to end long Stanley Cup drought