The Abbotsford Canucks’ first trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs might be a short one.
An April winning streak saw the Canucks storm up the standings in the AHL’s Pacific Division but two lopsided losses to end the season cost them home ice advantage. That’s a big deal in the first round, which is a best-of-three series played entirely in one city.
That means that Abbotsford might not even host a single playoff game this year, a possibility that became even more distinct after the Canucks dropped their first game of the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion.
Facing the Bakersfield Condors, the AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, the Canucks looked overwhelmed in the first period, giving up 20 shots on goal. It didn’t help that a line brawl gave the Condors a power play that turned into a 5-on-3 advantage after a puck was sent over the glass by the penalty killers.
Fortunately for the Canucks, Spencer Martin — the likely backup for Thatcher Demko next season — was brilliant in net. Martin didn’t lose a single game in regulation in his six starts for the Vancouver Canucks and he wasn’t going to lose this one in regulation either.
Martin stopped all 20 shots he faced in the first period and made a total of 45 saves to keep the Canucks in the game despite the lopsided shot totals.
Thanks to Martin’s heroics and the Canucks’ struggles to create scoring chances, the first goal of the game didn’t come until midway through the third period. When it finally came, it was off the stick of Vasily Podkolzin.
In his first AHL game and first playoff game in North America, Podkolzin saw significant use in all situations, playing on the wing on the second line, in the bumper on the first power play unit, and even getting some time on the penalty kill. At times, Podkolzin looked a little lost, likely a reflection of the looser structure of AHL hockey, but when it counted, Podkolzin came through.
Podkolzin took a pass from Sheldon Rempal to gain the Condors’ zone, then dropped the puck back to Rempal as he drove the net. Guillaume Brisebois had jumped up the left wing and was wide open. Jim Benning’s favourite prospect then drew Condors’ defenceman Vincent Desharnais across, leaving Podkolzin open in front.
Brisebois got the pass across and Podkolzin was initially robbed on the backhand — or perhaps found the post — but punched the puck in on the rebound.
That one goal nearly stood up as the game-winner.
Unfortunately, with 30 seconds left in regulation and the goaltender pulled for the extra attacker, the Condors pulled even with a goal from Seth Griffith. It was the Condors’ 41st shot of the game.
That took the game to overtime, where the Condors won it on the power play. The goal came off a miscommunication between Podkolzin and Brisebois — Podkolzin pursued the puck on the backcheck but Brisebois went to the same man, leading to a 2-on-1 in the middle that was poorly defended by Madison Bowey.
Either Podkolzin needed to stay central on the backcheck or Brisebois needed to read that Podkolzin was pursuing the puck and stay central himself. It doesn’t help that Podkolzin has limited experience playing on the penalty kill this season.
Because it’s a best-of-three in this abbreviated first round, the loss puts the Canucks on the brink of elimination. One more loss and it’s over.
The high stakes made some of the lineup decisions very odd. Sheldon Dries and Sheldon Rempal have been two of the most dangerous forwards in the AHL this season, mostly while playing on the same line together, but they were split across the first and second line.
Danila Klimovich, who is raw and inexperienced but has natural scoring talent, was a healthy scratch. In his place, Jett Woo played on the fourth line.
Woo spent the back half of the season primarily playing at forward despite being drafted in the second round as a defenceman. Considering he’s one of the few right-handed defencemen in the Canucks’ system, that’s pretty concerning and raises further questions about the Canucks’ prospect development in the AHL.
The Canucks won't have long to reconfigure their lines before fighting for their playoff lives. Game 2 is Wednesday night.