Canucks challenged to find motivation in final meaningless games

Blake Wheeler had two goals and two assists as the Winnipeg Jets beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-0.

One day after the Vancouver Canucks’ elimination turned their rotten season into actual garbage time in the schedule, the motivation disparity between one team going to the National Hockey League playoffs and one team not was amplified by the Winnipeg Jets’ 5-0 win on Tuesday.

Mathematically eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoff race on Monday despite their 3-1 win over the Jets, the Canucks looked as empty mentally as they are hollow physically.

Their disengagement was understandable under the circumstances. The rallying cry that kept the Canucks going through a typhoon of challenges the last couple of months — that they could still make the playoffs — is now gone, and so Tuesday was their motivation.

Maybe it was just one game. Hopefully, they’ll muster something better Thursday in Calgary against the equally-despondent Flames. Surely, there are enough young prospects and on-the-bubble veterans yearning for NHL paycheques next season that enthusiasm will lift the team a little.

If not, the most disappointing Canucks season in more than a decade still has its worst week to come as Vancouver, its schedule and misery prolonged by last month’s COVID-19 crisis, play five more meaningless games while the Stanley Cup playoffs begin without them.

“I hope not,” beleaguered Canucks coach Travis Green said late Tuesday. “When you’re playing teams like this, their intensity level’s high. It becomes official last night. Were we a little tired? Maybe. But for me, your intensity level has to be high to play at the level needed at this time of year, especially against teams that are playing with that emotion, that intensity, that competitiveness. And if you’re not quite there at that level, you’re going to look like that. That’s just the way it is. There’s no hiding it; that’s the fact.

“We looked like we were a day late and a dollar short everywhere. Even getting a puck behind them and dumping it was a task tonight and when you do that, when you’re playing like that against a good team, it’s not going to be pretty.”

It wasn’t. It set a new Canucks standard for not pretty.

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The Jets led 1-0 after the first period, 3-0 after two and added two more goals in the third period when the Canucks managed only six shots.

Blake Wheeler had two goals and two assists for the Jets and goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who appeared to be fighting the puck much of the night but only when it came to him, had the easiest 24-save shutout he’ll ever get.

The focus for Canucks fans the rest of the way, most of them angry, will naturally be on draft-lottery seedings and Vancouver’s young players.

Dynamic defenceman Jack Rathbone logged his fifth NHL game on Tuesday, and that he became a focal point for the Jets at the end of the first period was revealing.

The rookie embarrassed Wheeler a little late in the period, beating the Jets’ captain with a drag move inside the Winnipeg blue line while drawing a tripping penalty at 19:19. Wheeler felt Rathbone flopped easily. During the ensuing power play, 210-pound Jets centre Adam Lowry took a gratuitous run at Rathbone behind the Vancouver net as the period ended.

It was a needless hit; time was expiring and Rathbone was going nowhere. But Lowry barrelled into him anyway. In the second period, Rathbone absorbed hits from Mason Appleton and Dominic Toninato. The 177-pound Canucks rookie, who left Harvard to turn pro a year ago, is already on the opposition radar.

“That’s the way the league is: if you’re a skilled guy, people are going to try to hit you,” Green said. “He’s watched Quinn Hughes for a while now. He’s a smart kid; he knows that’s going to happen. But you’ve got to live it, you’ve got to learn it.”

At this spectacularly early stage, Rathbone looks a little like Quinn Hughes Lite. Already it appears the Canucks will need to make room for both Hughes and Rathbone on the left side of their defence next season. Can the team’s third left-side defenceman be Olli Juolevi, who would make the ages on that half of the blue line 22, 22 and 23?

Is that practical or must the team re-sign career Canuck Alexander Edler, 35, to a team-friendly one-year contract to return for a 16th season in a mentoring role?

That’s one question to ponder over the next five games.

“I’m just preparing for the next game, and what happens after the season, we’ll see,” Edler said Tuesday. “I’m just trying to focus on these last games and that’s kind of where my head is at.

“It’s never fun to play in games that doesn’t mean anything. But at the same time, we have a lot of young guys in the lineup that’s trying to show themselves and prove that they can play in the league. They’re going to play as hard as they can and be excited, so it’s up to the older guys to get ready, too.”

Edler said he’s ready to play all five.

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