DENVER – For teams like the Vancouver Canucks, it’s never over. Until the trade deadline, and then it’s over.
Trading away one of your leading scorers like the Canucks did at Monday’s National Hockey League deadline – Thomas Vanek, you may have heard, was dealt for next-to-nothing because at least that was something – is sobering evidence that management has moved on from this season. That the team is so hopelessly adrift in the standings that winning is no longer the primary focus.
What might be described as garbage time began for the Canucks with a 3-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night, eight hours after 17-goal scorer Vanek was sent to the Columbus Blue Jackets for second-tier prospect Tyler Motte and journeyman Jussi Jokinen.
With the new guys unavailable, the Canucks had to cobble together a lineup that included using defenceman Alex Biega at forward (he played three shifts) and another defencemen, Alexander Edler, who appeared to be playing with a limp after blocking a shot the previous night in Arizona.
The Canucks got a late goal from Daniel Sedin at six-on-five to wreck Semyon Varlamov’s shutout, but the Avalanche came right back with an empty-netter from Nathan MacKinnon and never looked much troubled by Vancouver, even though Colorado is having a hard time beating anybody else these days.
“The trade deadline is always odd, especially when you’re in the position we’re in,” Canucks veteran Sam Gagner said. “There’s probably going to be a couple of guys shipped out. I thought the guys did a pretty good job of just focusing on playing hockey. I think just coming in like this on a back-to-back, you don’t really have too much time to think about things. You just go out and play.”
For the first time in franchise history, the Canucks had road games the night before the trade deadline and the night after, with the second game played a mile high in the Rockies.
“We didn’t really do all that much in terms of selling off players and we’ve got a couple of new guys coming in,” Gagner continued. “It gives us a little certainty going forward – that this is our lineup for the rest of the year. You do your best to go into the summer with a positive outlook by making sure you gave everything you had and played out the string and played hard. Hopefully we’ll get some wins here and get a better feeling.”
It has been a while since they felt good. The Canucks have lost eight of their last 11 games and are 10-22-3 since Dec. 5, when injuries reached a critical mass and the start of the end of their season began.
No matter what’s at stake in terms of future employment, it’s difficult to be excited about playing the final quarter of this season. Playing a second game in 24 hours at altitude, sandwiched around the angst of the trading deadline, just makes the situation even more mentally debilitating.
But it wasn’t circumstances or hopelessness that got the Canucks in trouble early; it was penalties.
Torched by the Colorado power play five times in a 5-4 loss to the Avalanche at sea level one week earlier, the Canucks took four penalties in the first 21 minutes.
On the third disadvantage, after an interference penalty against Canucks defenceman Troy Stecher late in the first period, the Avalanche power play made it 1-0 when Mikko Rantanen swatted MacKinnon’s saucer pass over goalie Jacob Markstrom’s shoulder with 24 seconds remaining in the opening frame. The goal spoiled what had been an excellent period for Markstrom, who was playing again despite having been forced by his defence to deal with 42 shots in the Canucks’ 3-1 win Sunday against the Arizona Coyotes.
“You come into this building and sometimes it’s pretty hard to breathe in the first period,” Edler said. “When you kill that many penalties, you definitely spend more energy. That’s something tonight that hurt us. I think we played an OK game other than that.”
When the second period began, the Canucks took another penalty, Jake Virtanen’s second hooking infraction in what became a three-penalty night for him.
After 40 minutes, it felt like the Canucks should have been down by three or four goals. Instead, they clung to the 1-0 deficit, hoping for a moment of inspiration from someone. Or just some pure oxygen.
The inspired moment nearly came seven and a half minutes into the third period when Virtanen got behind the Avalanche defence. But the Canuck sent a wrist shot flush off the goal post to Varlamov’s left.
And on the ensuring counterattack, MacKinnon bulled his way past Stecher on the left wing boards and, from a sharp angle, fooled Markstrom with a near-post shot that was easier than a dozen of the ones the goalie stopped.
“I shouldn’t have taken three penalties,” Virtanen said. “I’m just playing hard, just trying to strip guys and get the puck from the other team. But I’ll learn from those, make sure I take a couple of extra strides.”
Of his breakaway chance to tie it, Virtanen said: “I wanted to go just over his pad there. It sucks there when those hit the post. And then they come back down and score. It sucks.”
Yes, it did. The whole day and much of this season.