For most of this season, the Vancouver Canucks never saw what was coming until it ran over them. But Monday, they knew.
After last summer’s breakthrough by a team that hadn’t made the Stanley Cup tournament in five years, the Canucks were eliminated from the 2021 playoff race with six games remaining in their pandemic schedule.
Their regression has been cemented.
As the National Hockey League was confirming the Saturday start of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs late Monday, the Canucks were beating the Winnipeg Jets 3-1 after the Montreal Canadiens’ single point in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers guaranteed that Vancouver would miss the post-season for the fifth time in six years.
The Canucks never envisioned a 6-11-0 start, never knew that when star centre Elias Pettersson left the lineup on March 3 with a day-to-day injury that he wouldn’t play again. The Canucks didn’t expect to be flattened in April by the worst COVID-19 outbreak of the NHL season, or be without a total of eight forwards soon after. And they couldn’t possibly plan for a revised schedule that is forcing them to finish with 19 games in 32 days, the final seven games in just 10 nights.
But after all these surprises, they saw Monday’s elimination coming about the time the emotional charge of their COVID-19 restart dissipated after a couple of unlikely wins over the Toronto Maple Leafs three weeks ago.
There were just too many setbacks, including all those early losses, for the Canucks to recover in the standings.
The end came Monday not with a thunderclap, but a muted celebration of a win in Winnipeg and resignation about how different things are now than they were last August, when the surprising Canucks won two playoff series and took the Vegas Golden Knights to Game 7 in another.
“I think we knew that the odds were stacked here for the last few games,” coach Travis Green said Monday night. “So I think, mentally, the team’s probably prepared for that. When you start a season, you want to make the playoffs. Once it’s official, it always stings a little bit.”
Canucks captain Bo Horvat said: “Missing the playoffs, it’s never fun. That’s what you play the game for, and that’s what you want to do every single year, is get to the playoffs because anything can happen. It’s definitely disappointing that we’re not going to get in.”
Horvat is nearing the end of his seventh season in Vancouver and has made the playoffs twice.
At 21-26-3, the Canucks face the dispiriting prospect of playing out meaningless make-up games against the Calgary Flames next week — after the playoffs have started in other places. Truly, a season like none before it.
Goalie Thatcher Demko, who was in pre-COVID form on Monday with 39 saves on 40 shots against the Jets, said motivation for the final six games won’t change with Vancouver’s mathematical elimination.
“Not for me,” Demko said. “I’m sure, you know, a lot of the guys on the team feel the same way: we want to win. Regardless of the circumstance, it’s about pride for organization, pride for our teammates, coaches, staff. You’re playing for a lot more than what people may think. We’re going to try to win every single time that we get on the ice.”
“He’s spot on,” Horvat said. “We play for pride, we play for our organization, our fan base no matter the circumstances. We’re going to come out and try to win every single night. We’ve got to take pride in our group and find ways to win hockey games.”
The Canucks are 13 points behind the fourth-place Canadiens, who have only one game remaining.
Monday’s win, just Vancouver’s second in nine games, moved the team ahead of the Ottawa Senators on winning percentage in the Canadian division.
It provided some promising glimpses of the renewal that must continue around the Canucks for the team to build on its excellent foundation of young stars and avoid a repeat of this season.
Rookie Nils Hoglander scored twice for the Canucks and may have been their best skater, and defenceman Jack Rathbone had his most impressive game yet as the 22-year-old promoted from the American Hockey League for the first time logged 16:20 of less-sheltered ice time in his fourth NHL appearance.
Rathbone was also deployed on the right side of the Canucks’ power play, launching left-shot one-timers from quarterback Quinn Hughes’ passes as Green went with two defencemen on a unit that was on a 0-for-15 hibernation.
The new-look power play generated four shots on its lone advantage, and Rathbone finished the game with three shots on net, three hits and four blocks.
“He plays with authority, passes the puck with authority,” Green said. “He doesn’t look for too cute of a play and he can snap it quick. That’s important on your exit. I thought he looked very comfortable. It’s probably the best our power play has looked in a while.
“I think he’s gotten better every game. I think that comes with a little bit of confidence. Obviously, there’s some teaching and video work that goes with it. You can tell he loves the game. He’s anxious to learn. You can see the competitive side in his own zone as well.”
The Canucks and Jets play again Tuesday.
Forward Jonah Gadjovich, who scored 15 goals in 19 games for the Utica Comets before his callup, could be the next Canuck to make his NHL debut.