31 Thoughts: Can the Canucks ride this momentum into the playoffs?

canucks-leafs-celebrate

Quinn Hughes, Tanner Pearson, Bo Horvat and Nils Hoglander celebrate Horvat's goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday, April 18, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

• Canucks back in the playoff hunt
• Could OHLers compete at worlds?
• Keefe concerned about Leafs goaltending

Is the impossible unfolding in Vancouver?

Last Sunday, the Canucks entered their game against Toronto as the biggest NHL home underdog since the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 2, 2006. They were plus-331, meaning for every dollar you bet, you could win $3.31. (The 2006 Penguins team was plus-422, and actually led Ottawa 2-0 before giving up seven in a row.)

The Maple Leafs had season highs in scoring chances (44) and offensive-zone possession time (more than 11), but Braden Holtby dragged the Canucks into the fight. They walked into their dressing room after the second period trailing 2–1, and started telling each other, “If we’d known this would be the scenario after 40 minutes, we’d gladly take it.” You could see their confidence grow as he made one ridiculous save after another; 21:19 later they had a stunning and improbable 3–2 victory.

All you had to see was how they celebrated Bo Horvat’s overtime winner. The pictures told all.


Darryl Dyck/CP

Tuesday night, they did it again.

This one wasn’t as lopsided, but the Canucks twice fought back from one-goal deficits. Holtby made the saves (and David Rittich didn’t) as Vancouver scored four times in the third period. Suddenly they’re eight points back of fourth-place Montreal, with four games in hand. Last week, at least one player asked why they needed to play all 56 games. Now we’re doing playoff-probability math.

“A lot of people didn’t think we could win either one of these games,” head coach Travis Green said.

Winning solves all. The Canucks needed something positive considering everything they’d been through. It’s one thing for a player/coach/staff member to be affected — it’s something else entirely when your family goes through it. No one exploited the “us-versus-them” mentality better than former Canuck player, coach and GM Pat Quinn. He must be looking down and loving this, because that storyline is everywhere:

• There were the players, feeling they were being pushed before they were ready. J.T. Miller’s public plea caught the NHL and NHLPA by surprise, since those entities thought it was agreed that, no matter what the schedule looked like, no game was a guarantee until last Thursday’s tests. That was always the plan, but the players, for whatever reason, hadn’t been given enough information. They felt emboldened when their voices were heard.

• Almost everyone in the organization was under siege for actions before and after COVID hit. The Canucks made sure players had necessary medical care and sent meals to players’/families’ homes. Where communication broke down, I think, was because head coach Travis Green had one of the worst cases and wasn’t able to talk to his team. There were a lot of rumours about the Canucks’ adherence to protocols. They were not disciplined by the NHL, and no complaints were made to the league prior to the outbreak — although several did come after. The organization fought back against this narrative, but faced a lot of hard questions.

• Green and the coaching staff do not have contracts for next year. Those questions will only get louder.

• Then there was the personal pride. Holtby had lost the starting job to Thatcher Demko. The back-to-back 37-save games tied his season high. Prior to the Sunday return, he’d played just two games in 46 days. Tyler Myers, his contract criticized even before he signed it, played 30 minutes — eight above his average — on Sunday. Tanner Pearson, his extension criticized the moment it was announced, wasn’t supposed to be back from injury this quickly. He had two goals on Tuesday. No passengers in this lineup.

There were a lot of built-in excuses. It would be easy to limp to something like a 5-14 finish. The Canucks have sent a message that won’t be happening. Now come four straight against the Senators, who are 0-5 this season against Vancouver — outscored 22-7.

The Senators are better than they showed in those games. But the Canucks are better than we expected right now.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Another thing to watch with the Canucks: They have not given up on an Elias Pettersson return. GM Jim Benning said last week there was a setback, but the hope and goal is he will play again this season.

2. Late in regulation of Sunday’s Toronto/Vancouver game, there was a very close goal/no-goal call where Holtby scrambled like crazy to keep Mitch Marner’s attempt out of the net. On-ice officials ruled no goal, and there was no evidence to overturn. Several of you asked (and I wondered, too) about the in-crossbar camera. Was it in use? The answer is yes, it was. Television trucks don’t have immediate access to it, but Situation Room observers in Toronto are told to look at that angle first. In this case, the evidence was inconclusive, so the play stood as called.

The league has, in the past, sent out photos/videos that indicate what this particular camera shows. It’s a great idea and should continue.

3. Vancouver’s outbreak came as case numbers rise throughout Canada, leading to more questions in this country about a playoff bubble. What it could come down to is vaccination. The eligible ages are starting to drop in Canada. As of last weekend, there were estimates that players on Canadian teams could qualify around the start of the playoffs, although we’re all guessing.

Going early is a “third-rail” topic. There is no chance of doing it without some degree of firestorm. From what we know publicly, teams have followed local rules.

If a post-season bubble is necessary for the Canadian clubs, the most likely scenario is it will be in the U.S. That would eliminate the problem of cross-border travel later in the playoffs, and it could get players vaccinated sooner.

4. Injuries aren’t just a factor for teams, they are also affecting the officials. Three linesmen who retired last season (Scott Driscoll, Darren Gibbs, Brian Murphy) were not replaced. Four others — Derek Amell, Greg Devorski, Brian Mach and Steve Miller — have been out most of the year. As a result, the NHL’s needed to use minor-league referees as linesmen on a few occasions.

The league is also down two referees: Tim Peel (suspended) and Chris Rooney (injured). This doesn’t include short-term injuries, which pop up from time to time. It’s been a struggle.

5. Not sure if there’s any rhyme or reason to this, but teams are now 5-3-1 in their first games back after COVID-related shutdowns. New Jersey and Vancouver had the longest breaks; both won their first games back. Carolina, Montreal and Vegas also won. Buffalo, Colorado and Minnesota lost (the Wild had a depleted roster), while Philadelphia lost in a shootout.

6. This is going to be asked a lot in the aftermath of Toronto’s losses in Vancouver: The word on Frederik Andersen is that he’s feeling better and “getting closer” to a return. However, I still wonder what a realistic time frame can be. He’s skated three times since his last appearance on March 19. Head coach Sheldon Keefe admitted, “I’m concerned about our goaltending, obviously.” But, if you want Andersen properly built up for a playoff run, you can’t rush it.

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Chris Johnston: Maple Leafs goaltending has 'cooled off' since start of season
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7. Feel terrible for the OHL players who will not get any kind of season. Everybody else got at least a little something and this will be a major disadvantage to their draft chances. There are rumblings of combine-style events in Edmonton and possibly Saginaw closer to draft day, but it won’t be the same.

Already-selected prospects who were in the AHL (Quinton Byfield, Thomas Harley, etc.) get to stay there, and that looms large. The current NHL/AHL/CHL agreement, which mandates that all draftees under 20 get sent back to juniors unless they are in the NHL or have completed four CHL seasons, is up for renegotiation. The simple thing to do is renew it for another season in the middle of all this madness, and I’m told that is the most likely scenario as long-term solutions are discussed. But I’m wary of making predictions these days.

8. This is purely my mind at work, but I’m wondering if the timing and format for the World Hockey Championships gives any of these undrafted prospects a chance at some high-level competition. The event begins May 21, and there are potential non-playoff teams playing games as late as May 19. After a gruelling, intense, mind-bending season, it’s not going to be easy to get NHLers to go. This plan wouldn’t make it easy for Canada or the U.S.A. to contend for medals, but will agents and/or teams push for top prospects on the roster?

9. Patrick Marleau’s eyes welled up as he listened to Drew Remenda’s post-game question: What keeps you coming to the rink?

“I just love it,” he answered, pausing to control the emotion “There’s nothing else like it.”

He shook his head, unable to say anything else. He’s now gone to the rink for 1,768 NHL games, passing Gordie Howe as number one all-time.

Let’s go back to 1995. Team Alberta’s entry at the Canada Winter Games was absolutely loaded. Fifteen months later, one member of that team, Chris Phillips, would go first overall in the NHL draft. Following him would be Winter Games teammates Johnathan Aitken (eighth), Josh Holden (12th), Derek Morris (13th), Darren van Oene (37th) and Zenith Komarniski (75th). They were hometown favourites, the event held in Grande Prairie.

“It’s still one of the greatest sports upsets I’ve ever seen,” said Paul Henry, who’s witnessed a few in six decades of scouting and working as a team psychologist. “Tiny Saskatchewan wins the gold medal.”

Aneroid’s Marleau scored twice in the 3–1 championship victory. Twenty-six years later, it remains Saskatchewan’s only hockey gold at the Winter Games.

Marleau is a 1979 birthday, one year younger than most of the tournament’s top players.

“I was told that if I wanted to bring a 15-year-old, he had to be in top 10 per cent of our roster,” said Ross Mahoney, now Washington’s assistant GM, the coach of that team. “I told them, no offence, but he was at the top. For 10 days, our conversations were, ‘Thank you, Mr. Mahoney.’ ‘Thank you, Patrick.’”

Some things never changed.

“I remember him being a super-quiet 15-year-old, yet he looked old and mature for his age,” said then-teammate Cory Sarich. “He seemed two or three years older when he stepped on the ice. You could probably have put him out in any situation. It sometimes take guys half a career to figure that out.”

10. Two years later, San Jose picked second in the NHL draft. Everyone knew Joe Thornton was going first to Boston. The Sharks could have gone in several different directions, but there’s a legendary story about the late, great John Ferguson that, 24 years later, the scouting fraternity shares with a laugh. Ferguson was working for San Jose. He was in a popular hotel bar late one night (or early one morning), and another prospect the Sharks were considering walked in. That player had a game the next afternoon. Ferguson told him to go home, but the player emphatically said no. One executive joked that this prospect “rose on our draft board” when he stood up to one of the sport’s toughest personalities, but it didn’t help him with the Sharks.

Instead, Marleau — quiet, talented and dependable — was the choice. Boy did he validate that selection. All but 172 of these games were in teal.

Another longtime scout, asked if he remembered his pre-draft report on Marleau, texted: “I do. It says great skater and skill, will one day break Gordie Howe’s record for games played.” That was pretty good.

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11. When I was younger, I used to mock “attendance awards.” One of the popular TV shows of my teenage years was Growing Pains, starring hockey fanatic Alan Thicke. There was an episode where students protest the firing of a popular teacher, and administrators threaten to suspend them. Tracey Gold, who played Thicke’s daughter, worries a suspension will ruin her year-long perfect attendance. She gets mocked for it.

I laughed my head off at this. Who cared if you played hooky several times a semester? As a creaky 50-year-old, I feel the complete opposite.

“That’s crazy, all those days, all those games,” Curtis Joseph told NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger. “To be able to step past big attempted hits…. To be able to avoid injury, not get sick, stay healthy, that’s amazing.”

It’s not just the physical toll. I remember an interview with former Baltimore Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey talking about Cal Ripken’s baseball streak.

“The mental toughness that it took. I don’t think anyone can match that,” he said. “There’s an old saying in sports: It’s hard to be hungry when you’re full,” Remenda added. “Well, Marleau’s full, and he’s still hungry.”

It’s so true. There are a lot of grinders in life. I like to think I’m one; the idea of missing a broadcast makes me physically ill. But I’ve missed a few. Life happens. You plan, God laughs. Look at this pandemic.

One executive said last weekend that existence now is “not about planning — just reacting.” Not only did Marleau pass Howe, but he also played his 899th consecutive game. That’s the fourth-longest streak in league history (13 back of active leader Keith Yandle). Not only is he still pushing at age 41; he’s refusing to take nights off.

How many of us get to make that choice? Too often, those decisions are made for us.

12. A few more notes about Vancouver. There was a lot of interest in Jordie Benn, who ended up in Winnipeg. Quite a few teams asked about him.

13. With Benn gone and Alexander Edler/Travis Hamonic as unrestricted free agents, they will engage with Nikita Tryamkin over the next few days. The Russian defender, who has spent the past four seasons in the KHL, can be an unrestricted free agent next summer. We’ll see if he and the Canucks renew their relationship.

14. Finally, the next AHL Board meeting is May 6. If Vancouver wants to move its affiliate west from Utica, the plan must be part of the agenda. According to league rules, if an item is not on the agenda 10 days prior to the meeting, each club has veto power against adding it later. Rick Dhaliwal reported Abbotsford, B.C., Prescott Valley, Ariz., and Salt Lake City as possibilities.

15. Last week, I mentioned that Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff tried something “big” before the trade deadline. Not sure if there were several targets, but one was definitely Dallas’s Jamie Oleksiak. They made a legit pitch, but the Stars decided to hold. It would be a surprise if Oleksiak/Dallas do not work this out, before or after the expansion draft.

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16. There was real disappointment Adam Lowry re-signed in Winnipeg. He was a free-agent target. But, don’t (bleep) with happy, especially now.

17. Nikolaj Ehlers has seven goals and 10 points in his last 11 games against Toronto. Paul Henry, the longtime scout mentioned in the top section of this piece, explained why.

“I’ve told him the best game I’ve ever seen by any junior player was John Tavares against Belleville (in 2007). He had four goals and an assist, then scored the winner in a shootout. Nik had the second-best game of any junior I ever saw. Halifax was in Rouyn-Noranda (in 2014), and they were down. Then Nik went to work. He had three goals and three assists, as they won 8-5.”

Henry is laughing as he adds that Ehlers corrected him.

“He said, ‘No, I had four goals and and two assists.’ But he’s always trying to one-up (Tavares) because he knows I consider that game to be better than his.”

18. Get well soon, Carey Price. The Canadiens’ netminder was injured Monday night in the first period of their 4–1 loss to Edmonton and will miss at least a week in concussion protocol. Cayden Primeau is up on an emergency basis, and could face Calgary this week.

The secondary concern is the roster headaches this creates for Montreal. If they activate Cole Caufield, it will be their last available post-deadline recall. (You get four, and the previous were used up by Paul Byron, Xavier Ouellet and Alexander Romanov.) Adding Caufield would put someone on the taxi squad (Byron?) who cannot be recalled. It’s an extremely delicate dance, and I wouldn’t want to depend knowing only an injury could make someone like Byron eligible again.

19. Roope Hintz didn’t play Tuesday night as Dallas moved within one point of Nashville (with two games in hand) for the final playoff spot in the Central. A player reached out to say there should be something in the blog this week about him.

“He’s held together by string and duct tape, playing his heart out.”

Hintz barely practises, then looks like a Tasmanian devil during games.

20. Spencer Knight made his NHL debut Tuesday night, as the Panthers beat Columbus 5-1. He might have played sooner, but had to get his equipment modified to NHL standards. His chest protector, pads and pants all had to adjusted. (It’s possible he wears one of Sergei Bobrovsky’s old chest protectors.)

21. Didn’t like what I initially heard about Steven Stamkos’s injury (that the Lightning were worried it could carry deep into the playoffs), so it was great to hear head coach Jon Cooper say Tampa is “extremely optimistic” the captain will be able to return when eligible. That’s May 5 against Dallas.

22. Chris Johnston reported last week that the NHL sent a note to all teams warning of increased scrutiny on long-term injury usage, specifically when it came to cap manipulation. I don’t get riled up about this issue, since I try to manipulate the rules of every pool I’m in. But it drives some teams absolutely crazy.

23. Arizona extended defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin for one year and $1.35 million. Good month for him, as he scored his first career goal two weeks ago against the Kings. The signing also fulfilled the Coyotes’ expansion-draft requirements. He can be protected along with Jacob Chychrun and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, or exposed if the team signs/acquires someone else it chooses to keep.

Is Michael Bunting next on their list? Unrestricted free agent because he won’t reach 80 games by the end of the season. He’s got seven goals in 11 games. Does a one-way guarantee get it done?

24. The Rangers entered Tuesday night’s game at plus-33 in goal differential. I can’t find an example of a team with a goal differential that strong that didn’t make the playoffs. They finish with two at Boston, and it would be tremendous entertainment to see those games matter. Whatever the case, the rebuild is definitely ahead of schedule.

25. Tuesday night, Pittsburgh became the first team in NHL history to win a game when it was outscored by five in the third period. A furious New Jersey comeback turned a 6-0 blowout into a 7-6 nailbiter. In the process, the Devils became the third team in NHL history to lose a game despite outscoring someone by five in any period.

On March 10, 1976, the Penguins scored five in the second to take a 6-2 lead on Buffalo. The Sabres scored five of their own in the third to win. The crazy thing about this was the first one didn’t come until there was just 9:25 remaining. Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault won it with 0:21 to go.

I remember the second one — it was Jan. 26, 1987. Toronto scored five in the first and still led Calgary 5-0 after two. The Flames stormed back in the third. Joe Mullen tied it with 0:49 left in regulation. Colin Patterson won in it in overtime.

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26. Not sure what’s going to happen with the coaching situation in Buffalo, but the Sabres are improved under Don Granato. I always remember one lesson from compatriot Craig Simpson: Be careful how you judge what happens when a team is out of the playoffs. The pressure is off, things can be deceptive.

However, I strongly believe in attitude. The best outcome for the Sabres over the remainder of the season is that players see a benefit in better play/results. That’s why I’m a little concerned about Columbus. That’s a competitive, driven organization. It’s not fun when you finish below expectations. But you have to find a way to create optimism, and everyone looks miserable.

27. There’s a GM meeting on Wednesday. Lots of logistical stuff. Expansion draft, NHL draft, development camps, rookie orientation. So many things to prepare for, so much uncertainty.

28. Take your time, Jujhar Khaira. Get healthy. Everyone knows you can play in this league.

29. It took a second try, but 2022 Russian draft eligible Ivan Miroshnichenko got his waiver to enter the U.S.A. for the World Under-18s, beginning next Monday in Texas. Originally, Miroshnichenko was the only player rejected. He got word late last week, and with the team scheduled to travel on Monday, it didn’t seem like enough time for any kind of appeal. But, because he does have a U.S. work visa through 2024 (and some international arm-twisting), the decision was reversed.

30. If there’s ever a year where it’s essential to recognize those who might qualify for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, this is it. The award is given to someone who “through the sport of hockey, has positively impacted their community, culture or society.” Click here for more info. Nominations close this week at.

31. If it helps anyone feel more comfortable, we waited our turn to be vaccinated and received the first shot. One day of tiredness, but otherwise clear. Hope our experience helps convince others to go.

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