VANCOUVER – With the spectacular arrival in the National Hockey League this week of Quinn Hughes stoking optimism around the Vancouver Canucks and the belief that better days are surely ahead, it was easy to forget how bad some days have been this season for Sven Baertschi.
The 26-year-old winger, expected to be an important offensive piece for the Canucks, missed 53 games with a concussion. Even more unsettling, Baertschi’s absence was divided into two long segments interrupted by a mostly-effective 12-game spell in January that was followed by an alarming return of his concussion symptoms.
When Hughes, the 19-year-old dynamo fresh out of the University of Michigan, made a memorable debut on Thursday, hardly anyone noticed that Baertschi was again back out of the Vancouver lineup just two games into a second return from his head injury.
Canucks coach Travis Green insisted Baertschi was just tired from playing twice in three days after so long an absence. But there was an uneasiness about the explanation.
On Saturday, however, Baertschi was back in the lineup. He scored his first goal since Jan. 23 in Vancouver’s 3-2 shootout win against the Dallas Stars.
Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom stole the spotlight from Hughes, who wasn’t as audacious in the second game of his career but nearly scored in overtime during a wonderful shift with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.
Markstrom made 38 saves as the Canucks clung to the game after blowing a 2-0 third period lead. None of the eight Stars he faced in the extended shootout beat him, and Vancouver won it on Markus Granlund’s five-hole deke through Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin.
But quietly, importantly, it was a very good night for Baertschi, who in addition to his wrist shot through Khudobin’s pads in the first period also hit the post on a beautiful move in the third after a great pass from Boeser.
"They were excited for me," Baertschi said of his teammates’ reaction. "They’ve been excited ever since I’ve been back playing with them. They’re the best teammates. They’ve been unbelievable through this whole process, checking in on me every day. Even when the boys were on the road, I got messages from them, guys just checking in. I never got tired of it. I was so excited that the guys cared so much. They were there along this whole journey."
Injured on an unpenalized check to the head by Vegas Golden Knights winger Tomas Hyka on Oct. 24, Baertschi didn’t play again for nearly 10 weeks. After his Dec. 29 return, the Swiss veteran scored five times in 12 games before waking after a 5-1 road win against the Colorado Avalanche on Feb. 2 feeling unwell.
There was a possibility Baertschi wouldn’t play again this season – he admitted he wondered at times if he’d ever play again – but he recovered the last couple of weeks and badly wanted to play again before the Canucks’ season ends next Saturday in St. Louis. He needed to prove to himself that he could play and not be clouded by doubts during the long off-season.
"I’m actually really happy with the way I’ve competed," Baertschi said Saturday. "As I’m looking forward, it’s still hockey and things happen out there. I’m just taking every shift really seriously and trying to leave it all out there as much as I can. So far, I feel really comfortable and I’m really confident that after this off-season, I’ll come back and be even better."
Baertschi said Green warned him before his return last weekend that the coach might take him back out of the lineup rather than play him every second day. So, the player was mentally ready Thursday when he was kept out of the Canucks’ 3-2 shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings.
"For him to come in and play really well at the start of the year and then get injured, come back… and being injured again, you never want to see a teammate, a friend, and a great guy (go through that)," Markstrom said. "To get him back and see him come in here now and score a goal, it’s nice. It’s positive. Brings a smile on everybody’s face."
Other than the euphoria lingering from his debut against the Kings, when Hughes had a brilliant assist, there wasn’t as much reason to smile while watching him in Game 2. He finished with 16:05 of ice time and a Corsi-for of just 33 per cent. Vancouver was outshot 10-5 at even strength when Hughes was on the ice.
"They were really good, really fast," Hughes said of the Stars. "I thought it was a pretty good test for myself. They were a little bit faster (than Los Angeles) and it was a different game. I just want to keep building."
The Canucks are 34-35-10 and will finish at .500 if they win two of their final three games. Their last home game is Tuesday against the San Jose Sharks.