With a six-game winning streak, the Vancouver Canucks have put themselves in an unfamiliar position: in charge of their own destiny.
It’s true. All the Canucks have to do is win every single game left in their season, preferably all in regulation, and they will guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs. Yes, that would mean a franchise-record 12-game winning streak that would be tied for the tenth-longest winning streak in NHL history, but it’s possible.
The biggest obstacle might not be tough opponents like the Minnesota Wild and Calgary Flames, who the Canucks face later this week. Instead, the biggest obstacle might be the schedule itself. Two of the Canucks’ six remaining games are on the second half of back-to-backs, including their game against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night.
The Canucks have been playing on a knife’s edge for months, knowing that a few too many losses would take them out of playoff contention for good. In a way, the Canucks have already been in playoff mode.
“The only people that think we’re done are the people outside,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau a month ago. “We have to play every game like it’s a playoff game.”
That’s a great mental state to be in while trying to do the improbable but it’s also exhausting. The Canucks have been pouring everything out on the ice, battling through multiple injuries to key players to get back into the playoff hunt. The concern is that fatigue might catch up to them at some point.
The second half of back-to-backs is often when that happens.
Back-to-back games haven’t been kind to the Canucks this season. So far, the Canucks are 3-5-3 on the second half of back-to-backs. Two of their three wins have come against the two worst teams in the NHL: the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes.
That doesn’t instill a lot of confidence.
On Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators, the Canucks will also be without their star goaltender, Thatcher Demko, as Boudreau made the rational decision to give his starter at least one more rest before the final five games of the season.
Instead, the ball has been passed to Jaroslav Halak, who bounced back from his February struggles with stellar performances against the Colorado Avalanche in March and the Coyotes in April. He hasn’t played since that win over the Coyotes 12 days ago, however.
Both of those wins came on back-to-backs: the first half of back-to-backs against the Avalanche and the second half against the Coyotes. Boudreau is hoping that Halak can repeat that same feat.
“My thought process was pretty simple — Halak has played pretty well for us,” said Boudreau. “I just do it more on feel. Demko has been hot and Halak, since we put him back in, has been really good.”
Watching Nashville Predators goaltender Juuse Saros get lit up by the St. Louis Blues on the second half of back-to-backs with no rest helped solidify his decision, according to Boudreau.
“We’ve got two goalies and we may as well use them,” said Boudreau. “Especially in the last five games, Demko may have to play all five and he’s been pretty solid, so that’s an advantage for us.”
“When he puts his mind to it, he can be a great goaltender, and we’re expected that,” added Boudreau.
One thing that helps the Canucks as they play these back-to-backs — Tuesday against the Senators, then the final game of the season against the Edmonton Oilers — is that their opponent will also be playing with no rest. Both games are the second half of back-to-backs for their opponents too.
The question is, who will be affected by the fatigue more? A Senators team that has been out of the playoff picture for quite some time, cruising along with the occasional upset of a playoff team? An Oilers team that will likely have already secured second place in the Pacific?
Perhaps the Canucks, with more to play for than either team, will overcome any fatigue they might feel.
Most importantly, the Canucks can't afford to take the Senators lightly. Demko may be getting a day of rest but the rest of the Canucks can't do the same. They've come out swinging in all six games of their current winning streak, averaging over 5 goals per game. They need to take the same approach against the Senators on Tuesday night to keep the streak going and avoid falling into the back-to-back trap.