Technically speaking, the Vancouver Canucks have not yet been eliminated from the playoffs after their loss to the Calgary Flames on Saturday night.
Spiritually speaking, it’s all over but the crying.
Yes, if the Canucks win all three of their remaining games and the Dallas Stars fail to gain even a single point in their remaining three games and the Vegas Golden Knights only win one of their four remaining games — the one against the Stars, naturally — then the Canucks would tie the Stars in points and make the playoffs based on having the edge in the first tiebreaker, which is regulation wins.
If that seems convoluted and incredibly unlikely to actually happen, you’re absolutely right. In fact, the Canucks could be eliminated without even playing another game, as a Golden Knights win on Sunday night over the San Jose Sharks will ensure that, whatever the result of the game between the Golden Knights and Stars, the Canucks can’t make the playoffs.
A few games ago, the Canucks held their playoff destiny in their own hands. Then they immediately lost three-straight games.
The Canucks knew how important this game was. There’s a reason why Bruce Boudreau pulled Thatcher Demko for the extra attacker with six minutes left in the game when the Canucks were down by three goals. Desperate times call for desperate measures. It wasn’t enough.
“I’m disappointed,” said Boudreau. “It’s been a hard push and we didn’t get where we wanted to go.”
No, it wasn’t enough, but they gave it their best effort, which sums up much of this season for the Canucks. Their motto appeared to be that of the crew of the NSEA Protector: “Never give up, never surrender.”
“We pushed from December 5th ‘til now. I expect us, for the next three games, to keep pushing,” said Boudreau. “But we know that our ultimate goal is probably not going to be reached.”
They made it interesting, at the very least. For the past few months, it was actually fun to watch Canucks hockey again. They gave fans hope, not just for how far they might go this season, but for the potential of what next season could bring. Like rebellions, fandoms are built on hope.
Though this season ended in disappointment, the journey was still an enjoyable one. I kept that in mind as I watched this game.
- Amidst the hope, however, here’s a sobering thought. Since Bruce Boudreau took over, the Canucks have the 13th best record in the NHL, which is still thoroughly average. That speaks to how much work still needs to be done before the Canucks can be a serious Stanley Cup contender.
- The first period was largely uneventful, as both teams tentatively tested the waters, with neither team willing to cannonball into the deep end. That suited the Canucks just fine, as escaping the first period with a 0-0 score on the road is preferable to some of the first periods they’ve had this season.
- “The first period was pretty dull on both sides,” said Boudreau. “We came out the same way in the second period. If we had come out a little bit harder — we didn’t start applying any pressure until they had us two goals down...It’s not like a faucet, you can’t turn it on and off whenever you want.”
- Things unraveled in the second period, starting with a Flames power play after a careless high stick by Will Lockwood. Elias Lindholm scored his 40th goal of the season — his previous career high was 29 — with a rocket that went upstairs faster than time itself.
- 16 seconds later, it was 2-0. Some dubious defensive coverage left Dillon Dube indubitably open in the slot — Vasily Podkolzin’s dubiety about where to go he thought Tyler Myers had Dube covered left him puck-watching. Meanwhile, Oliver Ekman-Larsson couldn’t keep pace with Johnny Gaudreau as he circled behind the net, leaving him all kinds of time to set up Dube for the one-timer.
- The Canucks got the benefit of some lenient officiating later in the second period. Alex Chiasson got in on the forecheck and practically pitchforked Rasmus Andersson to the ice but the referees kept their whistles in their pockets despite the obvious hook. A moment later, J.T. Miller centred for Podkolzin, who tried to pull the puck to his forehand but instead put it in the path of Quinn Hughes, who had jumped up into open space. If he wasn’t wearing a Canucks jersey, you might have thought Hughes was a Shark or a Jet with the way he snapped it home.
- Conor Garland tied the game 2-2 in the third period with some brilliant hand-eye coordination on a knee-high pass from Myers. It was actually waist-high for Garland and that’s not a knock on his height — he was already sliding on one knee when the pass came across the crease and pretty much his entire body was below the goal line when he knocked in Myers’ pass out of mid-air.
- “When we tied it up, I thought, okay, let’s get through the next five minutes,” said Boudreau. “Then, even if it’s a game where you take it to overtime, we don’t care if they get an extra point or not. But they score on the next shift…it was like a sock in the head.”
- On the goal, Myers and Ekman-Larsson struggled to battle Milan Lucic and Brett Ritchie in front of the net and Chris Tanev threw a hard pass to Ritchie and it deflected in off his skate while Lucic ran interference in front of Demko. Like, literal interference. Lucic ran into Demko’s stick and blocker, preventing him from stretching it across to stop the puck.
- It initially looked like Boudreau was going to challenge for goaltender interference, with him and the players on the bench yelling to get the attention of the officials before they dropped the puck for the faceoff. Ultimately, he decided not to challenge, perhaps because the contact with Demko’s blocker appeared to happen outside of the crease.
- The Flames made it 4-2 after a breakout pass by Luke Schenn was tipped and intercepted in the neutral zone. The Flames broke back 2-on-1 and Dube caught Demko anticipating a pass and roofed the puck on the backhand.
- The goal also illustrated one of the most frustrating aspects of J.T. Miller’s game — his tendency to give up when something doesn’t go his way. He was beaver-tailing for Schenn to pass him the puck. When the puck didn’t get to him, instead of immediately backchecking hard, he slowly and dejectedly skated to the bench for a line change. Maybe he wouldn’t have been able to prevent the goal but he didn’t even try.
- And yet, Miller still ended the game with three assists, pitching in on every goal the Canucks scored, so it’s hard to criticize him too much.
- This game was all about quick goals for the Flames: two goals in 16 seconds in the second period, a goal 14 seconds after the Canucks tied the game, then two goals in 12 seconds to put the game away for good. Myers tried to kick aside a point shot and instead ended up kicking the puck into his own net.
- Ekman-Larsson and Myers were on the ice for 4 goals against in their last game against the Wild. Saturday night against the Flames, they were on the ice for three goals against. That’s a rough couple of nights for the ostensible shutdown pairing.
- That’s ten goals against Demko in his last two games, as he looked fatigued playing his fourth game in six nights. But with the season on the line, who else was going to go in net?
- “He might be tiring,” said Boudreau of Demko. “But he’s been so good for us and when you’re desperate, you have to gamble. And when you gamble, you have to play your best… I felt comfortable every time I put him in the net.”
- There was one last hurrah from the Canucks. Elias Pettersson, who had been effectively shut down by Tanev for most of the game, took a pass from Hughes, stepped over the Flames' blue line, and unleashed hell. It was the Platonic ideal of a wristshot, a brilliant piece of perfection that had no business being in such a dreary place as a playoff-hope-ending loss. The puck exploded off his stick like it was laced with gunpowder and went off the crossbar and in because that’s what perfect shots do.
- With his 56th assist, Hughes broke the Canucks’ franchise record for most assists in a season by a defenceman, previously held by Dennis Kearns. It also gave him 63 points, matching Doug Lidster’s franchise record set back in 1986-87. Hughes is breaking records like it was Disco Demolition Night.
- “He’s a special player,” said Boudreau of Hughes. “But he’s going to break that record five different times. Every year, he’s going to get better and he’s going to keep breaking that.”
- The Canucks certainly tried to make a comeback happen but, like fetch, it did not. They even called a timeout then sent out the first power play unit for the faceoff after Pettersson’s goal instead of a more traditional two-defenceman group, then added a fifth forward when they pulled Demko for the extra attacker. Alas, it only resulted in an empty net goal for Johnny Gaudreau to make the final score 6-3.
- “Not to make excuses, but it is difficult to get emotionally up for every game,” said Boudreau. “It’s what makes the playoffs special because you can do it for short periods of time but we’ve had to do it every single game. Sometimes, it works and sometimes you get the inconsistencies. But it will make them better for next year, for sure. They’ll know the consistency that they’ll need to go from day one to day 82.”