ST. LOUIS – The Vancouver Canucks extended their final game this season the same way they tried to extend their playoff push. In the end, they weren’t quite good enough at either.
But their 3-2 shootout loss Saturday against the St. Louis Blues, who were playing for first place in their division and are headed to the Stanley Cup playoffs as one of the National Hockey League’s hottest teams, left not resignation but hope.
The Canucks’ eight-point improvement over last season is more significant than it seems. They incorporated a pile of new players, most of them young and still getting better, and were expected by everyone to be worse this season after the retirement a year ago of Danny and Henrik Sedin.
But they clung to the vapor trails of the Western Conference playoff race until March, rarely gave up on games and are being lifted by a new wave of young stars, including rookie-of-the-year favourite Elias Pettersson.
“I’m really excited,” rookie goalie Thatcher Demko, whose excellent performance Saturday was harpooned by Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron’s shootout goals, said after the Canucks finished at 35-36-11. “It’s really fun to watch these guys grow together. A lot of young guys coming in, a lot of skill. It’s kind of the way the league is going: younger, faster, skilled players. I think we’re right there. Maybe just get a little more NHL experience, and I think we’re really close to (being) a good playoff team.”
Pettersson, who had scored just once in 22 games after starting his NHL career with 10 goals in 10 games, smashed a one-timer past St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington’s blocker to tie Saturday’s game with 2:09 remaining in regulation.
“I wouldn’t say it was a chip on my shoulder, but I would be starting to hesitate when I got a shot, and make a pass even though the pass wasn’t there,” Pettersson said after leading the Canucks with 28 goals and 66 points in 71 games. “It’s fun to end the season with a goal.”
Of his first year in the NHL, the 20-year-old said: “It’s been awesome, to be honest. I always dreamed to play here and in Vancouver, for Vancouver. It’s a beautiful city, great fans. Passionate fans. I’m really excited for the future.”
For many good reasons.
Jacob Markstrom proved he can not only start in the NHL but evolved into a superior goalie who keeps his team in every game. Defencemen Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher developed into more consistent, everyday NHLers; winger Jake Virtanen scored 15 goals and is building a career, and dynamic defenceman Quinn Hughes made an impressive transition straight out of college hockey late in the season. Despite serious injuries at the end of last season and near the start of this one, second-year winger Brock Boeser finished with 26 goals.
Pettersson should win the Calder Trophy in a landslide, and defenceman Quinn Hughes, who played the final five games as a 19-year-old straight out of college, is one of the early favourites to win the top rookie award next season. Powerful wingers Josh Leivo and Tanner Pearson were acquired in trades and provided secondary scoring. Pearson scored his 10th goal in 19 games for Vancouver on a spectacular third-period rush against the Blues.
The Canucks look profoundly farther ahead than just eight points in the standings compared to this time last year.
“Now we’ve got to keep improving,” Canuck coach Travis Green said. “We just talked to the team, talked about how we’re trying to play and install in our group the culture of competing. It’s a big summer, a big summer for everyone in our organization. We’ve got to push to get better and strive to be better next season again.
“We talked at the beginning of the year of developing and winning, trying to play a fast, aggressive style. We made some improvements this year while adding some young players, which isn’t always easy. You look at our three centremen: Pettersson, Bo (Horvat) and (Adam) Gaudette. Those are three really young centremen down the middle for the NHL, and they’ve all hung tough. They’ve had good years, each of them in different ways.
“We’ve got guys that want to win and I think they’re learning how to win in this league. And how hard it is to win.””
The Canucks finished their season playing four playoff teams and went 2-1-1. And they were unlucky not to get something out of Thursday’s 3-2 road loss to the Nashville Predators, whose winning goal with 20 seconds remaining was knocked into the Vancouver net by Stecher.’
“We were right there for so long – probably longer than people expected,” Boeser said of the Canucks’ unexpected participation in the playoff race. “We lost some games there and lost our chance to make the playoffs. But (the season) shows the way we’re trending and it’s exciting, not just for us but the fans. We’ve got Quinn Hughes now and everyone can see how exciting that is. I think we’ve taken a lot of steps in the right direction this year. I’m already excited for next year.”
Horvat said: “We’ve got a bright future ahead us.”
It looks that way.