DENVER – As impressive as the Vancouver Canucks’ late surge was Wednesday to force a tying goal, their 3-2 shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche was another torpedo to the hull of their sinking playoff hopes.
The good news is if the National Hockey League team believed everything analysts and forecasters predicted for it, the Canucks would have given up long ago and wouldn’t still be competing like they did here, where they overcame a poor start against a soaring rival, were rescued by goalie Jacob Markstrom and came within a shootout goal or save of winning.
Instead, after Canucks centre Bo Horvat missed a chance to clinch it, and the Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen extended the shootout on a must-score deke, Carl Soderberg won it for Colorado in the sixth round of the skills competition when his shot bounced glove-and-in off Markstrom.
Markstrom, who was magnificent in a 43-save performance, also got a piece of the puck on Rantanen’s shootout goal as the Avalanche moved into final wildcard playoff spot in the Western Conference, five points up on the Canucks.
Even before the loss, Hockey Reference.com pegged the Canucks’ playoff chances at 7.8 per cent. That’s a lot less than the odds were three weeks ago, before Vancouver’s 3-6-3 descent. But it’s about seven percentage points better than anyone figured when this season began.
"Tonight was a good example; we never stopped," Canucks defenceman Alex Biega said. "We just kept going. It wasn’t the best that we’d like to play in certain areas, but we kept at it.
"Every point matters now. We have another divisional opponent tomorrow night in Arizona and we have to win. That’s just the bottom line. On this road trip, we have to start going on a run here. It’s a must-win for us."
The Arizona Coyotes are two points ahead of the Canucks in the playoff race, three adrift of the Avalanche, which is 5-0-1 in its last six games.
Canucks coach Travis Green didn’t name his goalie for Vancouver’s second game in 24 hours, but backup Thatcher Demko, who hasn’t played since spraining his knee in the warmup in Philadelphia on Feb. 4, declared himself ready if given the start.
Markstrom, beaten in regulation time only on long-distance one-timers by Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon – after soft plays inside the blue line by Canucks forwards Ryan Spooner and Markus Granlund – has already played both sides of back-to-back games four times this season.
He needed a little more help on Wednesday, but that’s often the case with the Canucks.
Vancouver rallied for a tying goal with 3:02 remaining in regulation time on a beautifully-executed faceoff play. Josh Leivo blasted a one-timer past Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov from above the circle after Horvat won a faceoff, and Alex Biega and Spooner connected on passes as Leivo rotated into a shooting position.
Think about the three guys on the scoring play late in the third period of what amounted to a playoff game for Vancouver: Leivo, claimed on waivers from Toronto in December; Biega, a healthy scratch for most of this season and playing only because top defencemen Alex Edler and Chris Tanev are injured; and Spooner, a reclamation project from the minors who was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers two weeks ago.
"I’ve been here for four games now and I think the group knows that we’re a playoff team — that we can be," Spooner said. "That being said, the first period tonight killed us. We had a couple of lazy plays at the blue line, which I had one of them. This time of the year, those can cost you and they kind of did tonight. But as a group, since I’ve been here, things have been very positive. It’s been good to see."
The Canucks were outshot 17-8 in the first period despite having six minutes of power-play time. That weakness in their game cost them again on Wednesday as the power play finished 0-for-5 while the Avalanche went 1-for-3 with the extra player.
"It’s the NHL and anything can happen in this league," Canucks winger Nikolay Goldobin said after another strong game. "I know we are six or seven points away from playoffs, but we get three wins in a row… we’re right back in it. We just have to continue to work hard and get to that point."
"Everyone’s right there," Leivo said. "We’ve just to keep coming."
The Canucks are still missing a few things. Determination isn’t one of them.