They have been transported by circumstance back to their childhood days of minor hockey and those big tournaments with a consolation side of the bracket.
You know that side of the draw, when teams that have been eliminated from championship contention — rather than driving home after only a game or two – are allowed to keep playing? But participation comes with conditions: games will be at strange times, and nobody is going to be paying much attention except parents.
The Canucks and Flames have basically become two of the worst teams in a giant National Hockey League tournament. They’re in the loser draw with three games remaining against each other – after the good teams start the Stanley Cup playoffs on Saturday – that are meaningless except for draft-lottery seedings.
In this respect, the Canucks were big winners on Thursday, losing 4-1 to the Flames, making it extremely difficult for Calgary to duck under Vancouver near the bottom of the league standings.
With four games remaining in an excruciating season mercilessly prolonged by last month’s COVID-19 outbreak, the Canucks are 26th in the league with a .433 winning percentage, but have an excellent chance to climb under the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets. Those teams have completed their 56-game seasons and are three points ahead of Vancouver, which will help its draft odds immensely if the Canucks don’t win any more than one of their final games, starting with Saturday’s matinee against the Edmonton Oilers.
Lose all four in regulation and the Canucks will sneak into the bottom three in the standings.
Saturday will be the first time in NHL history that regular-season and playoff games will be played the same day, as the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals open the Stanley Cup tournament after the Canucks play the Oilers.
Also eliminated, the Flames play the Canucks on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday when the opening round of the playoffs will be fully underway.
This is the loser bracket, and there are no participation ribbons.
“I never really thought of it like that, but maybe,” Canuck defenceman Tyler Myers said Thursday when asked about the minor-hockey tournament analogy. “Our last few games with Calgary, both will be out of it. But I think we’ll see a lot of it just like it was tonight. Both teams still played hard. It’ll certainly be a strange feeling but you can tell both teams are taking pride in the last few games here.”
The unprecedented season is getting even stranger.
“It’ll be different, for sure,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “Whenever you’re out of the playoffs, getting the most out of your group, especially the veteran guys, is a little bit different. But we’ve talked to our group about that — what’s expected. I thought we had a much better effort tonight. We did a lot of good things in the first two periods.”
The Canucks were awful in Tuesday’s 5-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, whose first-round playoff series against the Oilers starts Wednesday about two hours after Vancouver and Calgary end their seasons with a noon PT game.
The Canucks were far more engaged against the Flames but no more successful.
After Matthew Highmore opened scoring at 1:02 with his first Canucks goal, 14 games after his trade from the Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver surrendered four straight goals to lose for the ninth time in 11 games.
Coverage mistakes by Canucks’ Tanner Pearson and Olli Juolevi led to net-front goals by Rasmus Andersson and Andrew Mangiapane. Flame Elias Lindholm scored on a third-period breakaway before Brad Meier, who has been selected to officiate 89 NHL playoff games in 22 years, pretty much ended the contest at 15:59 with a botched elbowing call against Canuck Jimmy Vesey on which the referee doubled down by tossing in an unsportsmanlike penalty.
“I’m encouraged by our group,” Myers said. “I love the way we’re still battling even though we’re out it. A lot of (injured) guys out of the lineup right now that provide quite a bit of stability for us, within our system. But guys are battling hard. . . (and) we’re still taking a lot of pride in these last few games.”
In six of their recent nine losses, the Canucks have scored one goal or less.
Minor-league callup Jonah Gadjovich, who had 15 goals in 19 games for the Utica Comets, is unable to play until the Canucks can expand their roster on Sunday because the team, which was left with 19 games in 32 days after its health crisis, has already used the four post-trade-deadline callups the NHL allows.
But Gadjovich, who quarantined and met the Canucks in Winnipeg, is on the road trip and would be available on an emergency basis if any of the 12 forwards on Vancouver’s roster is injured. On Sunday, as the Comets season ends, Gadjovich and fellow minor-leaguer Will Lockwood will be able to join the Canucks for their final three games.
The team could use a boost. Or not.