What a difference a year makes … in sports, as well as that other thing everyone is talking about.
One year ago, during the hockey apocalypse, no Canadian team was able even to make the playoffs for the trophy Lord Stanley said should go to the championship team of the Dominion.
Today, there is even a possibility that the postseason could feature one-anthem games north of the border.
This Sunday evening in Canada's capital, two surprising Canadian teams met – the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets – with real stakes involved for both. A Senators win would tie them with the Montreal Canadiens for first place in the Atlantic Division. A Jets win would bring them within real striking distance of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
"It's crunch time for everybody," Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher said.
An interesting choice of words, as "crunch" is essentially what happened to Boucher's Senators as the evening went on.
It was not just that they lost 3-2, or even that they failed to get that important single overtime point when officials ruled a seeming last-second goal by Jean-Gabriel Pageau "inconclusive."
It was that less than 24 hours after losing forward Bobby Ryan to a hand injury for the next three to six weeks, they lost, in quick order: sniper Mike Hoffman to a mysterious first-period problem; shot-block-specialist Mark Borowiecki when he blocked a hard Patrik Laine drive with his right leg and had to be helped off the ice; top scorer Mark Stone to a possible concussion when he took a shoulder to the head from Winnipeg's Jacob Trouba; and new forward Tommy Wingels to another potential concussion when he got … crunched by big Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien.
"Right now, it's looking like a disaster," a shocked Boucher said when the mayhem settled. "To have all this happen in a matter of hours is very tough, I'm not going to lie to you."
Boucher's Senators went into the match having won four of their previous five, the most recent two, against New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs, won with the players' fathers along as a cheering section.
Perhaps they should have extended the "Dads Trip" to Ottawa, for faster than the Winterlude ice sculptures melted Sunday the Senators fell behind almost instantly.
It came at the 1 minute 9 second mark of the first when Mark Scheifele, the Jets' leading scorer, found Byfuglien moving in from the right point, fed him the puck and Byfuglien blasted a hard slap shot over the glove of Ottawa goaltender Mike Condon.
As the goal came on the very first shot of the game, it stunned the sellout crowd of 19,288 who had come expecting their surging Senators to continue the upward climb against the Canadiens, who were beaten 3-1 only the day before by the Jets.
Not even a new coach in Claude Julien seemed to spark the now-stumbling and rather-listless Canadiens.
The Jets moved ahead 2-0 when Scheifele again got the puck in to little Mathieu Perreault, who used a backhand to wrap the puck around Condon and into the open net.
Also assisting on both opening goals was rookie sensation Laine, who has taken over the rookie scoring race with 28 goals and now 24 assists. He is still two months away from being able to celebrate in Ontario with a beer – or in Manitoba, for that matter, where the drinking age is also 19.
Five minutes into the second period, Ottawa brought the game back to within a goal when Stone ripped a high wrist shot past Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. For Ottawa, it was a rare power-play goal. For Stone, Ottawa's best forward this winter, it was his team-leading 22nd marker of the season.
The Jets moved ahead 3-1 on a long floating wrist shot from defenceman Josh Morrissey that eluded Condon.
Another five minutes into a period, the third, the Senators again brought the game to within a goal when Derick Brassard tipped an Erik Karlsson shot from the point and the puck ticked in off Zack Smith's skate. For Smith, it was his 14th of the year.
Even missing three key forwards, the Senators pressed hard in the dying minutes and believed they had forced overtime on Pageau's effort, but it was not to be.
"That was guaranteed out," argued Jets goaltender Hellebuyck, who said he had his glove and pad on the puck.
"I pushed the puck and it felt like his pad was in the net," Pageau contended.
No matter, when video replay could not provide a sighting of the puck, the officials had no choice but to deny Ottawa.
For the Jets, who have struggled at times this season – especially in goal – this victory coming with only 20 games remaining was most welcome, lifting them into a serious race for the wild-card spot against several western teams, including the Calgary Flames.
"It's huge," a relieved Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said. "We've got to string together as many [wins] as we can."