VANCOUVER — In the season in which he became a National Hockey League regular, Tanner Pearson played two extra months of hockey and after a mere 24 playoff games lifted the Stanley Cup for the Los Angeles Kings.
That was his normal.
It hasn’t been that way for either the Kings or Pearson since that 2013-14 season, but the powerful winger has been back in the Stanley Cup tournament a couple of times and still feels like the start of spring is the start of something more.
To Pearson, regular-season games in late March and early April are playoff dress rehearsals — the last chance to elevate and refine your game before the Stanley Cup survival test arrives.
The Vancouver Canucks are Pearson’s third team this season and, although better than the fallen Kings, they’re not going to the playoffs either.
But Pearson is playing like he is. He scored twice Tuesday and was probably Vancouver’s best player in the Canucks’ 4-2 comeback win against the San Jose Sharks, who are not only heading to the big dance next week but hoping to leave with the Cup.
“I’ve been in the league long enough to know how you have to play this time of year,” Pearson, 26, said as the Canucks crawled back to .500 at 35-35-10, draftists be damned. “Teams are heading into the playoffs and ramping up and getting their game in order because you don’t want to be making mistakes.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s one of those things where I’ve had the expectations over the years to finish off good because we were making the playoffs and I wanted to have a good sense of confidence because of that.”
Playoffs or not, Pearson’s confidence is fine.
That seemed as unlikely as a Canuck playoff run on Feb. 25 when Vancouver acquired the struggling winger from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for defenceman Erik Gudbranson.
Once a rising star in Los Angeles, Pearson began this season with the Kings by managing only a single assist in 17 games before he was traded to the Penguins. Nine goals in 44 games later, Pearson was flipped to the Canucks.
In 17 games since then — the sample size neatly matches his start in L.A. — Pearson has seven goals, which if sustained represents a 34-goal pace over a full season.
“Being moved twice in one year should be an eye-opener,” he said Tuesday. “I was not playing a lot in L.A., then started off playing a lot in Pittsburgh before getting bumped down the lines. It was a good time to check myself in the mirror. I just wanted to play hockey again.
“I think you just break down the little things in your game. For me, the little things paint the big picture. If I’m not doing those, then I’m no good on the ice.”
Pearson led the Canucks with seven shots on net against the Sharks, and he has 16 shots in his last four games while averaging 19:13 of ice time playing on what has been an effective line with centre Bo Horvat and winger Loui Eriksson.
Horvat and Eriksson assisted on both goals by Pearson, who jammed a loose puck under San Jose netminder Martin Jones to tie it 2-2 at 11:18 of the third period, 2:19 before Markus Granlund won it on a similarly scrambled goal made possible by Jones’ inability to locate the puck.
The best form of the season by Pearson and Eriksson coincide with the fading form of rookie-of-the-year favourite Elias Pettersson, who has just a single assist in five games and one goal in his last 21. Sophomore winger Brock Boeser, last season’s Calder Trophy runner-up, has one goal and two points in five games.
“I’ve been doing this quite a few years,” Eriksson, 33, said. “The young guys, it’s been a long season for them but they keep digging in as well.
“I’m playing more on an offensive line right now, so maybe that’s why I’ve been producing a little bit more lately. But I feel good. My body feels good. These last games of the season are pretty tough; we’re playing against good teams.”
Realistically out of the playoff race since February, the Canucks finish their season with a road trip to Nashville and St. Louis. Once more across the continent with feeling.
“I feel it’s a long season,” Pettersson, who played 57 league and playoff games last season in Sweden, said of his inaugural NHL marathon. “Tighter schedule and different kind of preparation; you have time to work out more in Sweden between games than you do here. But it’s been a fun year. We’re out, but the teams we’re playing are fighting for better spots and home advantage in the playoffs. These are the games you like to play.”
Horvat said nothing compares to a full 82-game NHL season. And that’s the minimum.
“And our travel is unlike a lot of teams,” he said. “I realized it my first year, this is not easy to play 82 hockey games.”
Rookie goalie Thatcher Demko made 33 saves against the Sharks and didn’t allow a goal over the final 49 minutes against a potent team that had everyone in its lineup except injured defenceman Erik Karlsson.
Pearson looks around the Canuck dressing room and expects to play more than 82 games next year.
“With all this young talent we’ve got, it’s going to be exciting,” he said. “There are going to be (playoff) expectations for sure, and you’ve got to fulfill those. At the end of the day, everyone plays to win a championship.”
It’s what he knows.