VANCOUVER – For the second straight game, the team playing for nothing beat one playing for everything as the Vancouver Canucks slowed the Anaheim Ducks’ playoff drive Tuesday with an impressive 4-1 victory.
The Canucks’ second consecutive win, which matched their longest hot streak since Dec. 5, came two days after Vancouver put a dagger in the Dallas Stars with a 4-1 victory in Texas.
Of course, this being the Canucks, they can’t even win properly. The sudden hot streak could undermine their National Hockey League draft-lottery position in the “race” to the bottom of the standings. But it does makes a nice change from all the losing and reflects some character befitting a Canucks team that could be playing its final games with future Hall of Famers Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
The twins could announce their retirement when the season ends – or sooner – after devoting their entire 18-year careers to Vancouver.
“It makes me feel better about this team,” Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom said. “It sucks losing. It doesn’t matter if it’s early in the season or late in the season. You say we have nothing to play for, but there’s contracts next year and … there are people playing for spots. It’s nice to see we’re playing good and trying to build something for next year.”
For the third season in a row, the Canucks are playing games in March with next year in mind, but unlike last spring, when they meekly lost their final eight games – and 15 of their last 17 – to plummet to 29th place, Vancouver is pushing back in garbage time.
With eight injured players done for the season, the Canucks have won three of four games since losing seven straight. The Canucks still competed hard in most of those losses but were unable to score. They’ve got 14 goals in the last four games.
“You look at the way the draft lottery has worked out over the years; there’s no guarantees,” centre Brandon Sutter said after the Canucks moved five points clear of last-overall Buffalo. “So for us, it’s about getting better as a team. I don’t think we loved the way we finished last season. We’re playing a lot better hockey right now than we were this time last year. Unfortunately, we’re in the same spot in the standings. But we’re trying to get better and build.
“The whole month of March we’ve been playing pretty good hockey. It is hard, no question about it. It’s a tough time of year when you’re not playing meaningful games. At the same time for us, they are, in a way, meaningful.”
Alex Biega, the undersized depth defenceman who embodies the play-every-game-like-it’s-your-last mentality that Canucks coach Travis Green implores, broke a 1-1 tie at 3:03 of the third period with a point shot that sailed through traffic and past Anaheim goalie John Gibson.
It was Biega’s first goal since his NHL debut, 132 games and more than three years ago.
“If I was expected to score goals, I guess I’d be making a lot more money than I am,” Biega joked. “I’d be lying to you if I wasn’t saying sometimes in the back of my head, ‘Well, am I ever going to score here?’ For me, it’s always been the same story: believe in yourself and do the right things.
“Everyone knows what type of person I am. I look at this an opportunity. I’m going to be 30 in a few days here, and I see an opportunity to come back next year and challenge for the five or six [defenceman] role. I know where I am in the organization, but you have the opportunity to showcase yourself every night you play. I don’t take that lightly.”
Sutter padded the lead at 8:30, blocking Ryan Kesler’s shot inside the Vancouver blue line, then outskating the unpopular former Canucks the other way. Sutter had Gibson beat on a breakaway but slid the puck off the post. With Gibson down and Kesler gone on a fly-by, Sutter stopped, collected the puck and scored to make it 3-1.
Both the goal and the goat made the Rogers Arena crowd happy. Sutter, who had scored only eight goals all season, added an empty-netter with 15.5 seconds remaining.
Badly outplayed by the Canucks in the first half of the game, the Ducks were tied 1-1 only on an extraordinarily lucky bounce off the glass on a shoot-in, which marooned Markstrom and left Andrew Cogliano with an open net at 17:06 of the second period.
The loss left Anaheim tied with the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues for the last three playoff spots in the Western Conference, just a single point ahead of the Colorado Avalanche, who have played one fewer game than the Ducks.
Anaheim was 5-0-1 before Tuesday and 12-4-2 the previous six weeks. The Ducks play the Kings on Friday and the Avalanche on Sunday. With only 35 regulation and overtime wins, the Ducks lose the tie-breaker against the teams around them.