Unlikely contributors have Canucks back in playoff hunt

Vancouver Canucks' Jake Virtanen, right, and Luke Schenn celebrate Virtanen's goal against the Ottawa Senators during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Wednesday March 20, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – Winning sucks. If you live in Tank Nation.

For normal people, it’s generally kind of fun.

Just in time for the NHL draft lottery, the Vancouver Canucks are on a roll. Their 7-4 win Wednesday against the Ottawa Senators, who were putrid for 48 minutes, gave the Canucks nine points from their last five games (4-0-1).

They are suddenly, inexplicably, back within four points of a playoff spot. But we’re not mentioning the P-word again here because the Stanley Cup tournament for Vancouver remains a fantasy as extreme as the renunciation of sporting faith that leads some fans to hope their team loses.

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The Canucks are trying to win because, well, what kind of players would they be if they were trying to lose? Unemployed ones, would be one answer.

The idea of tanking, at the lineup level, has always been a myth. It has never existed among players. Sure, managers have at times deliberately weakened their teams in a bid to dive to the bottom of the standings and pick first in the draft. But the NHL gives even the worst team only a one-in-five chance of getting the best pick.

So players play, and the Canucks these days are playing better.

As veteran defenceman Alex Biega wondered Wednesday morning: “Why would you want anyone, in any line of work, not to try?”

The NHL isn’t any line of work.

“I’ve never been on a team or heard of a team that’s just thrown in the towel,” veteran Canuck Luke Schenn, one of four defencemen on a patchwork blueline who may not be here next season, said after the game. “You’re always trying to prove something, whether it’s young guys trying to improve. . . or older guys fighting for contracts. At the end of the day, winning is way more fun. Guys can’t stand losing.”

Especially infuriating to those who rather the Canucks lose – in order to marginally decrease the heavy odds of Vancouver getting screwed again in the draft lottery — is that some of the positive difference-makers this week have been the most vilified Canucks.

Tim Schaller, mostly a healthy scratch this season, was contentiously dressed by Canucks coach Travis Green ahead of skilled winger Nikolay Goldobin Sunday in Dallas and scored both Vancouver goals in a 3-2 shootout win over the Stars. The next night in Chicago, Markus Granlund scored in the Canucks’ 3-2 overtime victory against the Blackhawks.

On Wednesday, colossal free-agent bust Loui Eriksson, healthy-scratched by Green one week earlier, had a goal and three assists against the Senators. It was the $36-million man’s first four-point night in nearly five years.

Schaller, Granlund and Eriksson may or may not be on the Canucks next season, but they’d sure like to be in the NHL.

“Obviously, it was tough to be scratched a couple of games ago,” Eriksson said. “But all you can do is try to get better and work hard. We’ve been playing good and winning games. We always want to win. You always try to do your best and battle hard.”

The Canucks will match their season-best “unbeaten” streak if they take at least a point Saturday at home against the Calgary Flames. The Columbus Blue Jackets visit Rogers Arena on Sunday, before the Canucks get more winnable home games next week against the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.

The 4-0-1 run follows a 4-10-3 slide that torpedoed Vancouver’s season.

“I think it shows that we don’t give up,” winger Brock Boeser said after his 24th goal of the season extended a personal scoring streak to eight games. “People have counted us out and we’ve come back and won games. I think it shows how bad our team does want to win, and wants to show up every night and play good hockey. That’s the culture we want to build.”

After scoring twice against the Senators, centre Bo Horvat said: “It just shows you never know what can happen down the stretch here. We’ve been playing some good hockey and we’re going to just keep plugging away and trying to make a run.”

And yet, for eight minutes of the third period, the Canucks seemed to reconsider the whole winning-is-everything thing.

The Senators, who managed only 13 shots in 48 minutes while falling behind 5-0, scored four straight before Horvat’s second deflection and Eriksson’s empty-netter secured both points for Vancouver.

Tanner Pearson also scored twice for the Canucks and defenceman Alex Edler had three assists as Vancouver ventilated former teammate Anders Nilsson, who allowed six goals on 39 shots.

Schenn, the Canucks’ 29-year-old minor-league call-up who is trying to rescue his NHL career, lived through a couple of dismal seasons in Arizona and several in Toronto. He has been to the post-season just twice in 10 years and knows how the odds are strongly against it happening here in April.

But that’s not the point, he said.

“I remember last year in Arizona, we had a pretty good second half,” Schenn said. “All the young guys played a lot better and a lot of veteran guys were still there, and I think they’ve had a lot better year (this season) because of it. Wins are wins and you want to keep building.

“Of course, next year is a new year. But I think when you have so many young guys … you’ve got to learn how to win games in different ways. And when you’re winning games, guys are gaining confidence. Going into the summer losing down the stretch, you’re not feeling great about yourself personally and as a team. But if you improve down the stretch and continue to work at your game, and young guys are putting up points and just winning, you have a little extra swagger and confidence coming into the next year.”

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