VANCOUVER — Still learning how to win, the Vancouver Canucks got a lesson in Hockey 101 on Saturday night.
Well on their way to the Stanley Cup tournament, the Calgary Flames soared to 101 points, hitting triple digits in the National Hockey League standings for the first time since 2006, with a 3-1 victory that might be the last closest thing the Canucks get to an actual playoff game this spring.
The Canucks were unable to extend their desperate five-game unbeaten streak or improve their miniscule playoff chances, which took another hit earlier Saturday when the Colorado Avalanche beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 to put Vancouver six points down in the wild-card race.
The Flames won wire-to-wire, dominating many shifts territorially despite the Canucks’ eagerness to battle in a game that had a lot of intensity and a little malice.
“You could feel the excitement in the building tonight and for the most part I thought we competed really well against that team,” Canucks defenceman Alex Biega said. “They’ve got a great combination of skill and work ethic. I think we matched them on the work ethic, but we made a couple of mistakes, turned the puck over.
“Calgary is getting ready to play playoff hockey and (on Sunday) the Columbus Blue Jackets are going to be desperate because they’re a point or two out. These are the kind of games we want to play in.”
The Canucks conclude their weekend back-to-back games against the Blue Jackets at Rogers Arena.
The Flames will continue their march towards the Pacific Division title during a three-game homestand that starts Monday against the Los Angeles Kings.
“It’s a big accomplishment so far to get there,” Calgary captain Mark Giordano, who scored one goal and set up two others, said of surpassing 100 points. “We’re proud, but we want to keep going. Keep playing well going into the playoffs and try to solidify the division (title) if we can and go from there.
“We know we’re going to have to get a lot more than 101 points to win the division. We’ve put ourselves in a good spot; we just have to keep playing well going into the playoffs.”
There is now a 27-point abyss separating the Canucks and Flames in the standings, but you wouldn’t guess the disparity between the teams by watching their season series.
Vancouver went 3-2 in the five games, although Calgary twice lost beyond regulation so finished the series 2-1-2.
The most remarkable aspect of the Canucks’ surge in March is they went 4-0-1 in their five games prior to Saturday while playing a defence that includes a bottom four of Biega, a depth blueliner who was a regular healthy scratch until seven weeks ago, and minor-league call-ups Luke Schenn, Ashton Sautner and Guillaume Brisebois.
This patchwork group was outstanding last weekend when the Canucks swept back-to-back road games in Dallas and Chicago. But against Calgary, Vancouver’s defence was exposed. It struggled to make plays out of its end, and chased the speedy Flames around the Canucks’ zone.
Brisebois and Schenn had turnovers that preceded the first two Calgary goals, while Canuck winger Jake Virtanen’s fly-by check on Giordano allowed the Flame to set up Andrew Mangiapane’s one-timer in the slot that made it 3-1 at 7:25 of the third period — about seven minutes after Canuck Brock Boeser’s power-play wrist shot deflected past Calgary goalie Mike Smith.
An astoundingly reckless play by Flames’ star Johnny Gaudreau, who slew-footed Virtanen to the ice on an otherwise harmless sequence, gave the Canucks a chance to come back.
Gaudreau was angry in the second period when cut in the mouth on a check by Canuck Bo Horvat, although replays appeared to show the damage was done by the Flame’s own stick, which was a point of contact on the light hit.
Understandably, the Flames weren’t much interested in the finer details of the collision. They saw their best player bleeding from a hit and heading to the dressing room for medical attention. They were not happy. Garnet Hathaway immediately tried to engage Horvat, who skated away.
The most interesting running skirmish was Swede on Swede: Canucks super-rookie Elias Pettersson and Flame defenceman Rasmus Andersson, who at 22 is two years old than the Calder Trophy favourite. They became involved behind the play during a change, shortly before Hathaway’s backhand eluded Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom to make it 2-0 at 17:08 of the second period.
“It was just hockey, just a battle,” Pettersson, who went back at Flame Matthew Tkachuk on a later exchange, said of the physicality. “Two guys who want to do their best to win games. It’s hockey. Of course, the intensity is much higher now. They’re a top team in the league, a great team. It’s two teams that play hard against each other.”
The Canucks certainly do play hard, just not with the calibre of defencemen the Flames possess.
“You’re always upset when you see your teammate get up slowly,” Giordano said of the Gaudreau incident. “That’s all part of it. We stick together. But for sure, you don’t ever want to see your teammate getting up slowly, especially your top guy. There was some good emotion out there. We knew they were going to bring a game tonight because they’re fighting for that (wild-card) spot.”
“You saw how emotional it was compared to other times,” Boeser said. “There were so many scrums, so it was an emotional game and I thought we played pretty well. But now we’ve got to turn our heads and focus on tomorrow.”
• Although cleared to play, Sven Baertschi was not included in Canucks coach Travis Green’s lineup after missing 22 games due to the effects of a concussion. But the winger should play Sunday against Columbus. Dynamic defence prospect Quinn Hughes, who hasn’t played since arriving from the University of Michigan nearly two weeks ago with a bone bruise in his foot, skated on his own Saturday morning but will likely require at least three more days on the ice before he can make his Canucks debut.