LOS ANGELES – Players are not supposed to look ahead in the schedule, but everyone else does.
And when the Vancouver Canucks started to wobble last week, losing games and injured players on a difficult road trip, two games in Southern California this week looked like a reprieve.
The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are not what they were. Big picture, both are trending the wrong way and over time things are going to get worse for them, not better. Although playing better since the National Hockey League All-Star Break, the Kings were still last in the Western Conference. The Ducks, who fired their coach after their losing streak reached seven games last weekend, were retreating quickly towards their Los Angeles Basin rivals.
Sure, the games were back-to-back for the Canucks. But Vancouver was relatively rested, if not healthy, and so desperate for points and traction in the wild-card playoff race that a sweep of SoCal was a realistic goal. Anything less than three points out of four would be a disappointment.
On Thursday, the Canucks were less than two minutes away from getting zero.
If Adam Gaudette was cheating last week and looking ahead in the schedule, it was the wrong one. He was with the Utica Comets until the Canucks recalled him on Tuesday. He could feel the desperation when he walked into the Vancouver dressing room.
Gaudette is part of the airlift amid the current six-player injury crisis.
He was in the perfect place late in the third period against the Kings. Gaudette followed in the vapour trail of Elias Pettersson, waited for a loose puck to slide to him then fired into the top corner past Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick to tie the game with 1:38 remaining in the third period.
Teammate Brock Boeser, beautifully set up by Gaudette on a second-period goal, won it 4-3 for Vancouver in a shootout, one night after the Canucks lost 1-0 to the Ducks.
Two points out of four would have been a major disappointment a week ago. Now, it’s enough to keep the Canucks going.
“We’re trying to stay positive; we’re still fighting for a playoff spot here,” Gaudette, the 22-year-year-old rookie, told reporters. “We’re playing like it’s playoff hockey. There’s a lot of commitment in the room right now and fighting for each other. It’s fun to play with this team right now.”
The Canucks continue to cling to a slice of the final wild-card playoff spot in the West, but they’ve played more games than everyone around them.
“It was a huge, gritty win,” veteran winger Antoine Roussel said. “Everybody was involved and everybody had a part. We had to adjust with a couple of new men in the tame because we’re a couple of men down. . . and our young guys came up and did a great job.”
Defenceman Guillaume Brisebois made his NHL debut, replacing injured Canuck blue-liner Chris Tanev. Nikolay Goldobin was plugged back into the attack for newly-injured winger Jake Virtanen.
Pettersson matched Boeser’s goal as the Canucks’ young guns led from the front. But the star was Gaudette, who is expected to get an extended run due to the troubling abdominal injury to centre Brandon Sutter.
This is Gaudette’s third turn in the NHL this season.
“I think he has come in a little more confident,” Roussel said. “You can see it. He’s carrying the puck a little bit more. He’s not too much in a hurry to move it. That’s huge for him to have the puck on his stick because, a player like that, he’s going to make plays.”
Gaudette’s fourth goal this season offset King defenceman Alec Martinez’s go-ahead goal on a fluttering slapshot at 10:59 of the third period.
Mired in a 3-for-44 slumber that has undoubtedly cost the Canucks some points since Jan. 2, Vancouver’s power play stepped up and gave its team an early 1-0 lead. That lasted seven seconds.
Pettersson created a shooting angle for himself behind Martinez and wired a wrist shot high, short-side on Quick to open the scoring at 12:22.
But just eight seconds later, the Kings tied it. Blowing the lead that quickly was even more remarkable for the Canucks because their centre, Jay Beagle, won the faceoff after Pettersson scored.
But when the puck was chipped forward by the Kings, Canucks forward Tyler Motte drifted slightly and left the middle open for Austin Wagner, who seemed to surprise Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom with a high snapshot from the top of the circles.
The Canucks retook the lead at 9:46 when Gaudette dished to Boeser on a quick two-on-one after Roussel forced a turnover from defenceman Sean Walker.
“Guys get put in opportunities and they step up,” Boeser said. “That’s why we continue to have success.”
The Canucks finish their road trip Saturday in San Jose.