VANCOUVER — Their darkest two weeks have been followed by their brightest two games.
With the year it has been and the times we are in, the most surprising thing about the Vancouver Canucks is not that they were crushed by the biggest COVID-19 outbreak in the National Hockey League, but that they’ve emerged from it with their most impressive performances of this unrepeatable season.
After three weeks of inactivity, much of it spent in their sick beds, the Canucks completed a two-game sweep of the Canadian division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, winning 6-3 at Rogers Arena by scoring four straight goals after falling behind in the third period.
It seems impossible, after all that has happened to them, that the Canucks can now rally from far back in the standings and earn a spot in the Stanley Cup tournament 17 games and 29 days from now.
But they just beat the mighty Maple Leafs twice in 72 hours when almost nobody gave them a chance of winning either game, and eight points behind the Montreal Canadiens in the playoff race with four games in hand suddenly doesn’t feel like such an outrageous proposition for Vancouver.
“It says a lot about our group,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “They want to win there. I think that's probably what it says the most. They're engaged; they want to win these games.
“We play the game to play games that matter. We talked about it about four days ago with our group — a lot of people were thinking that we couldn't win either one of these games.”
The Canucks won both by mustering whatever energy they have to play their best hockey in the third period. And sure, Leafs goalie David Rittich, acquired from the Calgary Flames to provide experienced, reliable depth, was abysmal when it mattered most.
He allowed Nils Hoglander to tie it 3-3 for Vancouver on an unscreened slapshot through Rittich’s pads from the top of the left-wing circle at 6:43 of the third period. And after Tanner Pearson’s rebound goal put the Canucks ahead 4-3 on a power play at 9:48, Rittich completely whiffed on a muffin from Pearson at 13:36.
The Canucks, however, had so much more going for them than the tea strainer in the Leafs’ net.
Vancouver played with more pace and energy than they did in Sunday’s OT win. The bottom half of the forwards looked a lot better with an infusion of new and returning players, including the debut in Vancouver of winger Matthew Highmore.
Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes had seven shot attempts and a three-point night, and was dancing like a star whenever he had the puck. Captain Bo Horvat played half of the third period, and J.T. Miller exerted his will on the game physically. Brandon Sutter scored the first and last Vancouver goals, the second into an empty net.
They look like a team inspired. By sickness? By doubt? By pride, believing that they weren’t the sixth-place team they’ve been in a seven-team division for most of the season?
It’s hard to say, but something may be happening here.
“I think it's just a testament to who we have in the locker room,” Hughes said. “I'm really proud of the guys. Hopefully we can keep stringing (wins) together.
“I'm definitely following the standings and I know all the guys are. I think the guys in the locker room, we've got a really good group. We could have folded coming off of what we just came off. I'm just really proud of the guys right now. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
After going two months without a win, goalie Braden Holtby has won two games in three days after the lingering effects of the coronavirus slightly delayed starter Thatcher Demko’s re-entry. And Pearson, who had two goals in 20 games, got two in four minutes on Tuesday.
It’s difficult to explain this, but feels representative of something.
“It's always fun to win,” Holtby said. “Obviously, this last little bit has been tough on us all. I'm just trying to get out there and find a way to give our team a chance to win. Whatever happened in the past doesn't really matter. We've got to move forward here to try and get ourselves in a position to play some meaningful hockey.
“I think we're kidding ourselves if we think winning two games is going to be enough. These two games, we needed to win them to stay in it. Now, let’s get back to work and keep pushing if we want an honest chance of competing down the stretch. The way we've battled the last couple games shows that we're willing to do that.”
Starting Thursday, the Canucks play four straight against the last-place Ottawa Senators. Vancouver is 5-0 against Ottawa this season.
Eight points back. Four games in-hand. It’s going to be a fascinating month.