CALGARY – The way the Vancouver Canucks started the National Hockey League season, it looked like they would be out of the playoff race by Christmas.
Instead, they survived until the final week of the regular season. Hardly and mostly in theory, but they did it.
Exhausted from 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 at home against the Seattle Kraken, left the Canucks six points out of the final wild-card spot in the playoffs with three games remaining.
Dallas is the only team in the race with fewer regulation wins than Vancouver, so if the Stars lose their last three games and the Canucks sweep the contest against the Kraken, Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver could still get in.
But the Canucks also need to get past the Vegas Golden Knights, who are two points ahead and will 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 to where we wanted to go,” coach Bruce Boudreau, whose December hire marked a dramatic turning point in the Canucks’ season, told reporters after the game. “So I am disappointed. We pushed from December 5 until now, and hopefully for the next three games we push again. But, I mean, our ultimate goal probably won’t be reached.
“It’s not to make excuses, but it’s difficult to get up, emotionally, for each match. It’s what makes the playoffs special because you can do it for short periods of time. We had to do it on every game (since Dec 5) and sometimes it works and sometimes there are inconsistencies. But it sure will make them better for next year. They will know the consistency they need to have from day 1 to day 82.”
The Canucks started the season 6-14-2 and are 32-16-9 since then.
They have finally run out of energy and time. They weren’t able to generate any pressure on Saturday until losing 2-0 to the Flames.
“It would have been nice to have a better start to the season and not be in this position,” Canucks defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “But we fought very hard to get back to this place and we are not going to give up now. We are going to show up in these last three games and play with all our hearts.
“I would rather be in Calgary’s position; that’s not a lie. But I’m very proud of that group that we have there. We never gave up, we never gave up in any game or at any point in the season, even when we were way behind at the beginning. And I don’t see us doing that in the last two games here.”
Twenty-one points ahead of the Canucks, the Flames have been toning their playoff muscles, safely atop the Pacific Division.
They are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games and seemed to exert their will when necessary on Saturday.
After Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes scored at 18:46 of the second period, Conor Garland hit an aerial goal pass from Tyler Myers to tie it 2-2 at 5:36 of the third. But just 14 seconds later, ex-Canuck Chris Tanev’s point shot bounced off the skate of Flames teammate Brett Ritchie.
Dillon Dube then scored in a two-on-one at 13:33 when Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko retreated into his net in a two-on-one after the loss of Luke Schenn. And Flames defender Nikita Zadorov was credited with a goal 12 seconds later when Myers tried to play goalie at the top of the box but ultimately grazed the puck behind his own keeper.
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 64the game of the season: 29 more than his “career high” last season.
“He could be tired,” Boudreau said. “But, I mean, it’s been so good for us. And when you’re desperate, you have to bet. When you play, you have to play your best at all times. I felt comfortable every time we put it on the net. He is a great goalkeeper who is only going to get better.”
When Elias Pettersson scored for the Canucks with 2:25 remaining on a laser slash down past Flames goalie Dan Vladar, it was largely irrelevant. But Hughes’ assist on goal meant something.
It was 56 for the 22-year-old.the assist of the season, breaking Dennis Kearns’ franchise record of 45 years for assists by a Canucks defenseman, and also allowed Hughes to tie Doug Lidster’s all-time scoring record of 63, set in 1987 .
“It’s amazing what it does on the ice,” Ekman-Larsson marveled. “That’s the guy you want at the back to build your team, so we’ve got him locked in. And many other pieces as well.
“He’s a special player,” agreed Boudreau. “But he is going to break that record. . . five different times. Every year, he’s going to get better and keep breaking it. It’s something that he’ll say, ‘Okay, okay.’ But he knows that he will do much better in the future.”
For another summer, the Canucks will hope for the same.