After a very weird month for the Vancouver Canucks, they’re embarking on the toughest test they have faced so far under head coach Bruce Boudreau.
That’s not to say they haven’t faced challenges during their nine-game point streak over the past month, where they have gone 8-0-1 since Boudreau was hired. Postponed games for various COVID-related issues have caused disruptions to their schedule and the effects were clearly felt in their one loss of the streak, an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings on the second night of back-to-back games after not playing for nearly two weeks.
They’ve also had to deal with players getting taken out of the lineup because of the NHL’s COVID protocol, including star goalscorer Brock Boeser, who has scored 5 goals in 6 games since the coaching change but had to be left to quarantine in Anaheim after a positive COVID-19 test.
What the Canucks haven’t faced, however, is a string of truly top-tier opponents. Heading into their road trip, the Boudreau-coached Canucks have faced just one team in the top ten of the NHL standings. That was the Carolina Hurricanes, who are currently third in the NHL. But the Hurricanes were also on the second half of back-to-backs, started their backup goaltender, and were missing their leading scorer, Sebastian Aho.
That’s not to take anything away from that victory but their current road trip presents a much bigger challenge for the Canucks: five-straight games against some of the most dangerous and talented teams in the NHL. And those teams are going to be well aware of the Canucks’ hot streak and won’t be treating them lightly.
First is the Florida Panthers, who are first in the Eastern Conference and first in the NHL thanks to a phenomenal season by Jonathan Huberdeau, a bounce-back season by Sergei Bobrovsky, and one of the strongest team games in the league.
Next up, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are second in the NHL and, oh yeah, are the defending Stanley Cup Champions twice over.
After that, there’s the third-ranked Hurricanes, with a fully-healthy Sebastian Aho, then the fifth-ranked Washington Capitals, with the most dangerous goalscorer in hockey, Alex Ovechkin.
To wrap it up, the Canucks face one Western Conference team: the Conference-leading Nashville Predators, with the red-hot Juuse Saros in net.
They have to play all of these teams after not playing for 10 days straight.
“I’m not gonna lie, it’s gonna be tough,” said Canucks captain Bo Horvat when asked about the difficulty of restarting after such a long stretch without games. “We’re not going to give ourselves excuses…We’re playing some really good hockey teams on this road trip and we’ve got to be ready to go.”
Also, their first home game back — their first in 38 days — will be against the Panthers again.
There’s a reason why new Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford said he wanted to wait until the end of January before he passed judgement on his team. He had this exact road trip in his sights.
“We’re gonna have a real tough road trip in January,” said Rutherford when he was hired in mid-December. “Going through the gauntlet of Florida and Carolina and Washington — we’ll get a better read on this team at that time.”
So, these five games are a major test for the Canucks. But they’re also an opportunity. This is a chance for the Canucks to prove that they’re not that far from true contention. The Canucks can prove to themselves, the fans, and most of all Rutherford that they can compete against the elite teams in the NHL and come out on top.
How the team performs over the next five games could determine what Rutherford and his yet-to-be-hired general manager do with the Canucks over the next year.