The Ottawa Senators are carrying the hopes of a hockey-centric nation on their shoulders.
They are the last of the Canadian teams left in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Then, there's the Toronto Maple Leafs. After making the playoffs for the first time since 2004, the Maple Leafs were in the process of shocking the hockey world. They fell behind the Boston Bruins 3-1 after the first four games, and it seemed like they would go quietly against a team that had tormented them in recent years.
But the Maple Leafs reached for another gear and found it. Not only did they win the fifth and sixth games to tie the series, they were dominating the Bruins in Boston in the third period of the seventh game.
Then it happened. The Maple Leafs appeared satisfied with their three-goal cushion and the Bruins kept pressing.
The Bruins got a goal near the midway point of the period to stop the bleeding. They got a huge save from Tuukka Rask to keep the Leafs from restoring their three-goal margin. Then, with Rask on the bench, Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron scored to tie the score. Bergeron added the inevitable winner in overtime.
The Leafs had been vanquished.
That left Canada with just one surviving team in the playoffs.
This is clearly a team that is deserving of respect. No team suffered through more serious injuries during the year than Paul MacLean's team. Stars like Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Craig Anderson were all out of the lineup at key points during the season.
Few gave the Senators a chance to make the playoffs for a second consecutive year. Most thought they would be sellers at the trade deadline.
They were nothing of the kind. They were resilient, and they made the playoffs as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
Their first-round win over Montreal earned them a matchup with the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins. That's a tough assignment for any team, but it's especially demanding for the Senators.
That's because they are not just playing for themselves and their fans. They are playing for a nation that has not had a Stanley Cup winner since 1993.
Twenty years ago, the Montreal Canadiens won their 24th Stanley Cup. Head coach Jacques Demers' team had a magical run. After dropping their first two games at home to the late, lamented Quebec Nordiques, the Canadiens were virtually unstoppable.
They won the next four games to eliminate the Nords. They swept the Buffalo Sabres. They took care of the New York Islanders in five games, and they did the same to the Los Angeles Kings to earn the Stanley Cup.
The Canadiens lost the opening game of the Nordiques series in overtime. That was definitely not part of a trend. They would play 10 more overtime games in that playoff year, and they would win them all.
In their victories over the Sabres and the Kings, they would win three overtime games in each series.
The Flames, Oilers and Canucks all got to the seventh game of that round before their hearts were broken
Canadian fans are having a hard time abiding all this Stanley Cup success by U.S.-based teams. Many find it insulting since they basically invented and fine-tuned the sport.
That's why the Senators have the weight of a nation on their shoulders.
Canadian hockey fans may root for the Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Jets, Canadiens and Maple Leafs. However, many of those fans have adopted the Senators for the remainder of the 2013 playoffs.
MacLean does not have to say anything about it and neither do his players, but they know what has already happened. Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg didn't make the playoffs and the others have been beaten in the first round.
If the Senators were a juggernaut, it would be one thing. Instead, they are facing a juggernaut in the high-scoring Penguins.
They may not need added pressure, but they have it.
To survive against the Penguins—and they have already dropped the opener—they are going to have to find some offense and goalie Craig Anderson must play brilliantly in goal.
It would be a tall order for any team, but it's even more demanding for Ottawa.
The odds are not in the Senators' favor to be the team that ends Canada's Stanley Cup dry spell.
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