CALGARY – The way the Vancouver Canucks started the National Hockey League season, it looked like they’d be out of the playoff race by Christmas.
Instead, they survived until the final week of the regular season. Barely and mostly in theory, but they made it.
Drained by the relentless, four-month sprint to catch up in the Western Conference standings, the Canucks lost their third straight game on Saturday, 6-3 to the Calgary Flames. The result, combined with the Dallas Stars’ 3-2 comeback win at home against the Seattle Kraken, left the Canucks six points out of the final wildcard playoff spot with three games to play.
Dallas is the only team in the race with fewer regulation wins than Vancouver, so if the Stars lose their final three games and the Canucks sweep contests against the Kraken, Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver could still get in.
But the Canucks also need to pass the Vegas Golden Knights, who are two points ahead and play the San Jose Sharks on Sunday. If the Knights win, the Canucks will be mathematically eliminated Tuesday when Vegas visits Dallas because someone has to win that game.
The Canucks will miss the Stanley Cup tournament for the sixth time in seven years.
“It’s been a hard push and we didn’t get where we wanted to go,” coach Bruce Boudreau, whose hiring in December marked a dramatic turning point in the Canucks’ season, told reporters after the game. “So I’m disappointed. We pushed from Dec. 5 until now, and I expect us for the next three games to keep pushing again. But, I mean, our ultimate goal is probably not going to be reached.
“Not to make excuses, but it is difficult to get up, and emotionally up, for every game. It’s what makes the playoffs special because you can do it for short periods of time. We’ve had to do it every single game (since Dec. 5) and 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 have to have from Day 1 to Day 82. ”
The Canucks started the season 6-14-2, and are 32-16-9 since.
They’ve finally run out of both energy and time. They weren’t able to generate any pressure on Saturday until they trailed the Flames 2-0.
“It would have been nice to have a better start to the season and not be in this position,” Canucks defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “But we battled so hard to get back to this spot and we’re not going to quit now. We’re going to show up for these last three games and play our heart out.
“I would rather be in Calgary’s position; that’s not a lie. But I’m so proud of that group that we have in there. We never quit, never give up in any games or any point in the season, even when we were far behind in the beginning. And I don’t see us doing that the last couple of games here. ”
Twenty-one points ahead of the Canucks, the Flames have been toning their playoff muscles, secure at the top of the Pacific Division.
They are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games, and seemed to exert their will when needed on Saturday.
After record-setting Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes scored at 18:46 of the second period, Conor Garland batted in Tyler Myers’ airborne goalmouth pass to tie it 2-2 at 5:36 of the third. But only 14 seconds later, ex-Canuck Chris Tanev’s point shot caromed in off the skate of Flames’ teammate Brett Ritchie.
Then Dillon Dube scored on a two-on-one at 13:33 as Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko retreated into his net on a two-on-one after Luke Schenn’s turnover. And Flames’ defenceman Nikita Zadorov was credited with a goal 12 seconds later when Myers tried to play goaltender at the top of the crease but eventually scuffed the puck behind his own netminder.
Demko allowed five goals on 31 shots, the third straight game in which the Canucks’ MVP didn’t look like himself. It was also his 64th game of the season – 29 more than his “career high” last season.
“He might be tiring,” Boudreau said. “But, I mean, he’s been so good for us. And when you’re desperate, you have to gamble. When you gamble, you have to play your best at all times. I felt comfortable every time we put him in the net. He’s a great goalie that’s only going to get better. ”
By the time Elias Pettersson scored for the Canucks with 2:25 remaining on a bar-down laser past Flames goalie Dan Vladar, it was largely irrelevant. But Hughes’ assisted on the goal meant something.
It was the 22-year-old’s 56th assist of the season, breaking Dennis Kearns’ 45-year-old franchise record for helpers by a Canucks defenceman, and also allowed Hughes to tie Doug Lidster’s all-time points record of 63, set in 1987.
“It’s just unbelievable what he does on the ice,” Ekman-Larsson marveled. “That’s the guy you want on the back end to build your team around, so we’ve got that locked in. And a lot of other pieces, too. ”
“He’s a special player,” Boudreau agreed. “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 it. It’s something that he’ll say, ‘That’s OK, that’s cool.’ But he knows he’s going to a lot better in the future. ”
For another summer, the Canucks will be hoping for the same thing.