EDMONTON – No matter how much a team soars past expectations, even doing things others thought impossible, no NHL season ever ends in defeat without sorrow and some regret.
The Vancouver Canucks weren’t even supposed to make the Stanley Cup tournament this season, but they won two playoff rounds and were a game away from advancing to the conference finals for just the fourth time in the franchise’s 50 years.
When their remarkable season, made more extraordinary by the summer of COVID-19, finally ended Friday with a 3-0 Game 7 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, the regret was that there was just nothing left for skaters to draw on to help goalie Thatcher Demko.
Demko’s arrival in the playoffs this week, with starter Jacob Markstrom injured and the Canucks down 3-1 and facing elimination, was the most incredible plot twist of Vancouver’s amazing six-week adventure in Edmonton.
In three starts, Demko's first action since the league shut down in March, he stopped 123 Vegas shots and allowed only two goals – and still that was not enough to carry his teammates past the Golden Knights.
“It obviously hurts,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that are upset right now. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. The Stanley Cup is hard to win. It should hurt when you lose.
“Not many times you go into a playoffs with 10 guys playing their first playoff game and you win a Stanley Cup. You’ve got to go through ... and learn. You’ve got to fall, got to get up. You’ve got to fall, get up and learn how hard it is. This was a good experience for our guys and we’ll be a lot better for it.
“I don’t think many people thought we’d be a goal away from going to the semi-finals. What our team has gone through, the mental part, physical part, it will help our group. It will help our group next year. It will help us in five years.”
Playoff rookies Elias Pettersson, 21, and Quinn Hughes, 20, — at the end, both still blocking shots at their empty-net after Knights’ defenceman Shea Theodore finally snaked a shot through a sea of players and past Demko with 6:08 remaining – admirably handled playoff intensity and pressure and look like they’ll be superstars in this league.
Captain Bo Horvat had an inspired tournament, scoring 10 goals. Winger J.T. Miller led nightly, the Canucks defended better than most people thought they could and both Markstrom and Demko, of course, were outstanding. The stage never looked too big for the Canucks.
The team just needs to be better, deeper at forward and stronger on defence, and faster still.
“I think right across the board, right through our lineup, I think there’s a lot of things to be proud of,” veteran forward Brandon Sutter said. “For the guys who experienced it for the first time, their battle level, compete level – some of them being only 21, 20 years old – showed a lot. I think we can all be pretty proud of the way we played.
“You never know when your opportunities are going to come to get a chance to win a Cup. I think this year was just awesome, just awesome, to get back in the fight. We can be proud of what we did, but it still gives you a bit of a bitter taste, too. It just makes you hungrier for another chance.”
Friday’s sour power play will linger long on Canuck palates.
A strength of the team all season, it failed miserably in Game 7 when the lack of strength and shots at five-on-five made the power play the most plausible means of an unlikely victory for the Canucks.
But they managed only two shots in 11 minutes of advantages, which included a five-minute power play that began late in the second period when Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct for a check to the head of Vancouver forward Tyler Motte.
Shots were 36-14 for Vegas, which got empty-net goals from Alex Tuch and Paul Stastny. The only time any team in Canucks history registered fewer shots in a playoff game, Vancouver beat San Jose in the 2011 Western Conference Final — because its power play pumped in three goals against the Sharks.
On Friday, the Canucks' power play unit didn’t come close to scoring against the Knights.
That’s something Canucks players will remember in the autumn months before another NHL season begins.
The team, of course, will be different whenever it plays next.
Markstrom, winger Tyler Toffoli and heart-and-soul defenceman Chris Tanev, a career Canuck, are eligible for unrestricted free agency — and its almost impossible for Vancouver to re-sign all three during the flat-cap crisis.
There will be a trickle-down financial effect bringing uncertainty, too, to restricted free agents like winger Jake Virtanen and defenceman Troy Stecher, who had an excellent playoffs.
But with its young core, made smarter and tougher from its time in Edmonton, the Canucks' success this summer may yet be only a preview of even brighter times ahead.
“From the puck drop [against] Minnesota (in the qualifying round) to the end of the game today, we battled hard,” Tanev said. “Very valuable for all the young guys who are extraordinary players. It’s a tremendous experience for them to get to taste the playoffs and play three rounds. And you know how hard it is when you lose like this, so those guys will be ready to go next year.”
At the end of his first season as captain, Horvat said: “It’s been a heckuva year in a lot of ways. I couldn’t be prouder of our guys the way they handled themselves on and off the ice. We played a lot of good hockey. (Vegas has) a really good team over there and we took them to seven games. We shouldn’t hang our heads; we should learn from it. We’re going to learn from it. We all said it in the room already: 'We can’t wait to get back next year and prove ourselves again.'”