The Canucks have officially qualified for the playoffs!
The Abbotsford Canucks, that is.
With a 3-1 win over the Laval Rocket on Sunday, the Abbotsford Canucks have clinched a spot in the AHL playoffs. Jack Rathbone led the way in the win with two points, including the game-winning goal, giving him 8 points in his last 4 games, while Mikey DiPietro stopped 32 of 33 shots.
Of course, the AHL playoffs are a little bit easier to qualify for this year than the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The AHL expanded qualification to 23 teams this season, with all but two teams in each of the league’s four divisions qualifying for the Calder Cup Playoffs. With a 32-21-5 record, the Abbotsford Canucks are currently fifth of nine teams in the Pacific Division but have enough points that neither of the teams in eighth or ninth can catch them.
If playoff qualification in the AHL worked like it does in the NHL, the Abbotsford Canucks would currently be in the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference, right on the edge of the playoff picture. Still, that would be a better spot than where the Vancouver Canucks are right now.
The situation is dire. The Canucks came into Sunday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights with the season on the line. The math made the playoffs unlikely, but there was an outside chance they could squeak in if they embarked on an epic run in the final 13 games of the season, particularly with three games in April against the Golden Knights, one of the teams ahead of them that they need to reel in.
They came close. Agonizingly close.
After yet another rough first period, the Canucks mounted a third-period comeback, tying the game at 2-2 with ten minutes left. The Canucks poured on the pressure, desperate to end the game in regulation and prevent the Golden Knights from picking up a point.
With two seconds left in the third period, Tanner Pearson won a battle below the goal line and sent a centring pass in the slot for Tyler Myers, who had snuck down from the point and was wide open.
With the season on his stick, Myers sent his shot two feet wide.
It’s not Myers’ fault, of course, whether we’re looking at the micro of this moment or the macro of the whole season and the makeup of the roster — it's not his fault Benning overpaid him, after all. Pearson’s pass was perfect but the ice at the end of the third period was not. You can see the puck skip up into the air off of some imperfection in the ice just a moment before it reaches Myers’ stick.
Games are won and lost on little skips of the puck like that but seasons are not. Really, this game could have been the beginning of a franchise-record 11-game winning streak for the Canucks and they still might have missed the playoffs.
The bounces may change from game-to-game but the pattern was all-too familiar. The Canucks have played dozens of games, it seems, exactly like this one: a brutal first period that puts them in a deep hole; a turnaround in the second period that puts them back on track; a hard-fought third period that sees them come up just short all too frequently.
It’s the season in miniature: the 8-15-2 start that got Jim Benning and Travis Green fired; the turnaround under Bruce Boudreau that reignited hope in the fanbase; and the hard-fought back half of the season that has seen the Canucks come so close and yet so far.
I saw the Canucks 2021-22 season when I watched this game.
- The Canucks have had a couple of impressive runs under Bruce Boudreau — the initial seven-game winning streak and an 8-1-1 stretch — but the Canucks have now won just three of their last 12 games with the season on the line. Yes, four of their nine losses have come in overtime, but that is of little consolation.
- The start was an ugly one, even by the Canucks’ standards. By the time the Golden Knights scored the opening goal, shots on goal were 10-1 for Vegas. The only Canucks shot — heck, the only shot attempt — was barely a shot at all. It was basically a dump-in by Brock Boeser from the point. The ice was more tilted than a Red Bull Crashed Ice course.
- “It’s like a broken record, I was already thinking it before you asked,” said J.T. Miller of the Canucks’ start. “I don’t know what else you want me to say about it, to be honest. We weren’t ready to play and lost in overtime. Obviously, we played our butts off for the second and third but it’s too late.”
- The Golden Knights opening goal came off a faceoff win by Chandler Stephenson in the Canucks’ zone. Jack Eichel picked up the puck and spotted Alex Pietrangelo jumping down the right side. Tanner Pearson, who should have been on Pietrangelo, got caught puck-watching and Pietrangelo had all the time he needed to rip the puck top corner, nearly ripping the shoulder patch off Thatcher Demko’s jersey in the process.
- “I don’t know why we don’t start on time,” said Boudreau. “They had us 10-1 in shots in the first period. I think teams know this and they come out flying and we should be able to know that we’ve got to hold off and play hard in the first period. Usually when we are in the lead or are tied, we end up winning the game.”
- The Canucks managed to push back a bit after the goal — Elias Pettersson and Boeser had good chances — but Jonathan Marchessault managed to extend the lead. Tucker Poolman swatted a loose puck into the middle of the ice, where Marchessault jumped onto it and took advantage of a very permissive gap from Travis Dermott, who seemed to expect that Bo Horvat would take Marchessault. Instead, Marchessault had all the space he needed to fire the puck just under the bar.
- Poolman was playing his first game since January 27 but he didn’t last long. He left the game after the first period with what Boudreau confirmed as a recurrence of the same issue that kept him out of the lineup before, previously reported by Boudreau as “headaches and migraines,” which sounds absolutely awful.
- It looked like the Canucks had lost Boeser near the end of the second period too. Pettersson went to throw a hit on Ben Hutton, now with the Golden Knights, but Boeser reached in to try to shove Hutton off-balance just as Pettersson made contact. Boeser’s right arm got caught in between the two of them and bent awkwardly. He went straight to the dressing room and it looked like his night was done but then he was right back on the ice for the start of the third period.
- Vasily Podkolzin was the Canucks’ best skater through the first two periods. He was seemingly everywhere on the ice, repeatedly chasing down loose pucks, winning battles on the boards, and driving to the net, but his efforts seemed hindered by his linemates, Nic Petan and Alex Chiasson. Podkolzin is a peacock, you’ve got to let him fly.
- In the third, Podkolzin and Chiasson were bumped up to play with Miller and it immediately paid dividends. Podkolzin cut off Shea Theodore behind the net to prevent a breakout, then won the puck battle down low alongside Chiasson. That led to an Oliver Ekman-Larsson shot that was blocked, but Ekman-Larsson picked off the clearance and fed Miller for a one-timer that hit the net harder than Luke Aikins.
- Here’s a little of the hustle Podkolzin showed all game as he set up another shot for Miller, who unfortunately didn’t get all of the puck this time. He gave Podkolzin a little “my bad” after the shot.
- “Petey, when he’s skating — he’s got more room to skate when he’s at centre ice,” said Boudreau about his line juggling that moved Pettersson back to centre. “I thought Podz and Chiasson were playing pretty well. We had to try something, we weren’t getting anywhere the way we were going. We tried it and we got two goals.”
- The second goal, however, was pretty dang lucky. Bo Horvat was 10-for-12 on faceoffs as he lined up against William Karlsson midway through the third period but Karlsson got the better of him. Only, Karlsson won the puck back towards his own goaltender, Robin Lehner, and Alec Martinez, trying to tip the puck towards the end boards, tipped it directly between Lehner’s pads for the game-tying goal, which was credited to Horvat for losing just his third faceoff of the game.
- “It’s probably one of the luckiest goals I’ve ever scored,” said Horvat. Probably? How in the world could you ever score a luckier goal?
- Here’s the controversy: when did the puck go in the net? The Canucks were on a very brief two-man advantage at the time of the faceoff, just two seconds long. If the Canucks scored within those two seconds, they would still be on the power play. Did the puck take two seconds to go into the net? The referees, after reviewing the footage, said it did, which means the goal happened during the second power play, ending it and putting the two teams at 5-on-5. Boudreau disagreed.
- “I’ll swear until doomsday that there was 10 minutes and 19 seconds when the puck went in the net,” said Boudreau. “I don’t know why all of a sudden they looked at it and then they know — ‘cause I just looked at it, they can see that it’s 10:19 when it goes in and then the clock turns but the clock turns after the puck is in the net, so it should have stayed at 10:19. I don’t get it. I don’t know the rule but I don’t understand it.”
- Marchessault’s penalty started with 12:18 remaining in the third period, which means it ended at 10:18. If the puck went into the net at 10:19, then there was still one second remaining on Marchessault’s penalty. Now, please enjoy this screenshot of the referee pointing to the net to indicate a goal with the clock at 10:19.
- The Canucks continued to press, creating chance after chance, but couldn’t beat Lehner again. Horvat had Lehner swimming on one chance but couldn’t quite beat him past the right pad, Chiasson sent a one-timer just over the net, and Dickinson tipped a puck off the outside of the post. But no one had a better chance than the one Myers sent wide in the final second.
- Seeing Horvat’s reaction to the Myers miss on the bench was crushing. Like Ralph Wiggum, you can pinpoint the second when Horvat’s heart rips in half.
- Horvat had the Canucks’ best chance in overtime, again off a rare faceoff loss. Horvat pushed past his man and poked the puck away from Shea Theodore, creating a breakaway, but he couldn’t beat Lehner on the deke with Theodore hounding him from behind.
- “None of that would have happened if I scored right there on the opening draw,” said Horvat, lamenting the remainder of the overtime. Horvat had reason to lament: he was caught cheating forward while Pettersson battled with Marchessault on the sideboards, creating a 3-on-1 for the Golden Knights when Pettersson couldn’t come up with the puck, leading directly to Theodore scoring the game-winning goal.
- “To be honest with you, it’s about whoever gets the right bounce or misses,” said Miller. “If you miss your chance — if they miss right there, we get a 2-on-0 or a 2-on-1 or a 3-on-1. We’re not getting the bounces — we’re probably not earning them as much as we should — but it’s a very fine line in overtime.”
- Boudreau wasn’t as philosophical as Miller after the game and it’s understandable why. The Canucks didn’t manage the overtime period well, with both Miller and Horvat losing the puck on overly-ambitious dekes while trying to go 1-on-3 before the poor read and lost battle created the chance for the Golden Knights in transition.
- “We talked about it before the overtime — we talk about it all the time — to stay on the right side of the puck,” said Boudreau. “There was no reason for 53 to go on that side of the puck. We didn’t have control of it. Even Petey could’ve checked from the other way. You know, in overtime, you can’t go deke guys one-on-one when you’re not going 100 miles an hour and we still try that too. I don’t know, I’m at a loss on that.”
- The Canucks are now eight points back of the Golden Knights for the final wild-card spot, then they also have to contend with the Dallas Stars, who are one point back of the Golden Knights and have four games in hand on them. If the goal was “meaningful games in March,” the Canucks got them, but they didn’t win enough of them to create meaningful games in April.