Up 3-2 late in the second period and still tied 3-3 on the road halfway through the third against a bruising, formidable opponent, the Canucks’ fuel gauge finally hit empty after all these months and the Wild scored three times in the last eight minutes to sink a dagger into Vancouver’s improbable playoff drive.
Leading scorer J.T. Miller hobbled to the final buzzer after blocking a slapshot on the inside of his knee. Checking centre Brad Richardson insisted on finishing the game after getting his nose smashed by Kirill Kaprizov’s stick in the first period. Goalie Thatcher Demko tried to play through whatever is affecting him — even if that is simply exhaustion after playing 63 games — but just didn’t have it.
The Wild were too good, too big, too deep.
The Canucks’ first regulation loss in nine games was still enough to feel like the end of hope after a magnificent four-month charge back towards the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But it wasn’t this game that cost them, even if it seemed that way. It was all those games they lost in November, when a team that needed everything to go well for it to make the post-season began the National Hockey League campaign 6-14-2.
That is the lesson they need to take from Thursday, from this season: Playing three-quarters of a season, even at the winning clip of a top-10 NHL team, isn’t enough when only half of the league’s 32 entries are allowed to play for the Stanley Cup.
Pettersson, who was stuck at six goals on Jan. 15, scored twice Thursday to bring his season total to 31, 13 of them in the last 12 games. But even if the Canucks win their final four games, starting Saturday in Calgary, it may not be enough.
It wasn’t enough that Miller, with 30 goals and 93 points, built the most productive season by a Canuck since Henrik and Daniel Sedin were winning consecutive NHL scoring titles a decade ago. It won’t be enough that Bo Horvat, now out with an ankle injury, scored 31 times. Or that defenceman Quinn Hughes will likely still set a new franchise record for points by a defenceman, needing three points from the final four games to surpass the 63 points Doug Lidster amassed 35 years ago. And it wasn’t enough that Demko had an MVP season, not only showing he can start over an 82-game campaign but proving he is one of the top goalies in the NHL.
All of these achievements were not enough to undo the damage to the Canucks from those first 22 games. Game 78 on Thursday — 32-15-9 since those first seven weeks — was a painful reminder of how much is required to make the playoffs.
“We had a lot of guys go down recently,” winger Conor Garland said Thursday after setting up Pettersson’s goals. “Everybody stepped up and played as hard as we could for as long as we could, trying to just keep winning games, trying to give ourselves a chance to get in. A lot of guys played hard for a long time. That won't change the last four (games) but tonight definitely hurts.
“We understand what that (loss) means. It's tough to be tied against probably one of the top two or three teams in the Western Conference in the third period, and we just couldn't find a way to get it done. It sucks. We just couldn't find a way to get that fourth one.”
Pettersson’s second goal, giving him five two-goal games in the last dozen, put the Canucks ahead 3-2 at 16:09 of a wild second period when he deftly converted Garland’s rebound to give Vancouver its only lead.
But it lasted less than two-and-a-half minutes because at 18:36, Mats Zuccarello crossed with Kaprizov in the Canucks’ zone and fired a wrist shot in off Demko’s catching glove to tie it.
Kevin Fiala scored the winner for Minnesota at 12:17 of the third period, shaking free from the Canucks' Brad Hunt as he circled behind the Vancouver net, skated out into the slot and scored short-side on Demko. Kaprizov fired between the goalie’s pads at 18:05, and Ryan Hartman added an empty-netter.
“Until eight minutes to go in the third period, I thought we were doing a really good job,” Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I thought their third goal was a little bit of a backbreaker. I mean, if we usually get into the third period with the lead, we're usually at least getting a point out of it. That hurt a little bit.”
But Boudreau added later: “They give it everything they have. I mean, tonight, for example, Miller's blocking a shot; he's got a couple ice bags on. Richardson breaks his nose and still wants to play. I mean, that's the kind of effort and character that these guys have. I'm very proud of them. They never quit, they never die. Obviously, tonight was very disappointing at the end, but... they could have given up a long time ago, the odds were so against us. But they believed and they still believe. They'll believe again tomorrow.”
With four games remaining, three against teams likely to be in the playoffs, the Canucks are four points back in the wildcard race, seven points behind the Los Angeles Kings for third place in the Pacific Division.
If they win out, the Canucks will have 95 points and that still may not be enough to make the playoffs.
“Everyone tried their best,” Pettersson said after his team was outshot 15-4 in the third period. “Everybody knew what's on the line, everybody worked their hardest.
“It's extremely tough. We know how badly we wanted this win. We battled all 60 minutes. It's not looking better for us, but it's certainly not over. We're going to battle until we don't have any games left.”
There are as few as eight days left in their season.