July 30 (Reuters) - It has been 53 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs hoisted the Stanley Cup but as the National Hockey League prepares to resume on Saturday after the COVID-19 shutdown, there is hope that one of sport’s longest title droughts could be about to end.
With six-of-seven Canadian franchises still in the postseason chase and all games being played north of the border for the first time since 1925, the stars seem to be aligning for a Canadian club to get their hands on Lord Stanley’s famous mug.
No Canadian team has won the Cup since 1993 which has been a source of embarrassment for hockey-mad Canada and no club has endured more taunting and torment for their decades of failure than the Maple Leafs.
The St. Louis Blues ended 51 seasons of frustration last year winning their first Stanley Cup leaving Toronto the sole owner of the NHL’s longest current title drought.
The all-time drought record is 53-years owned by the New York Rangers until they won the Cup in 1994.
With the NHL choosing to bring the postseason to Canada away from the surging coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., the Maple Leafs will have the added benefit of home ice advantage with Toronto and Edmonton chosen hub cities for the 24 teams.
Toronto players, like everyone else, will have to live in a hotel inside the quarantine bubble but will have the familiarity of playing on home ice even if it is in an empty arena.
When play halted in mid-March the Boston Bruins were top of the East standings, eight points clear of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were followed closely by 2018 Cup winners Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Maple Leafs, who have not won a playoff series since 2004, sit eighth 19 points back of the Bruins but do not lack confidence or firepower with young guns Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
“We’re very motivated,” declared Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. “We understand that there’s a chance to come back and prove some people wrong.”
The Lightning and Bruins, a team with no glaring weaknesses built for the grinding postseason, are the betting favourites to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final.
But no team is more motivated than the Lightning, who won a league-high 62 games last season and expected to make a deep playoff run only to be brushed aside in the opening round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. (Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Christian Radnedge)