On the brink of individual history, Canucks' Hughes simply focused on winning

Vancouver Canucks' Quinn Hughes, right, scores the winning goal against Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner, of Sweden, during overtime NHL hockey action in Vancouver, on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER – The only chase that matters right now to Quinn Hughes is the one he sees in the National Hockey League standings.

Despite winning their last four games, the Vancouver Canucks were still six points out of a playoff spot on Wednesday afternoon.

The Canucks are 28-13-8 the last four months under coach Bruce Boudreau, eighth in the NHL on points percentage, but almost certainly will run out of runway in their playoff chase. They have eight games remaining, starting with Thursday’s home contest against the Arizona Coyotes.

“At this point, it's all about winning, honestly,” Hughes told Sportsnet on Wednesday. “Everyone says that but, like, to be able to be in the playoffs, that would be the funnest thing ever. I mean, losing sucks. Last year was like the most miserable year, and the same thing starting this season. So whatever we have to do to win, I'm game. There's nothing worse than being on a losing team in the NHL, I think. It's just miserable.”

This explains why there were so many unhappy Canucks in the 1970s and 1980s.

But those decades still produced some shining moments, and spawned another chase that has been going on in Vancouver since then. And we don’t mean the need for affordable housing or light rail or a replacement for the Lions Gate Bridge.

In 1987, Doug Lidster set the single-season franchise record for points by a Canucks defenceman when he had 12 goals and 51 assists in 80 games.

No one has really come close to that record since then. But Hughes, in just his third NHL season, has a chance to beat it.

When Hughes flipped in the overtime winner in Tuesday’s 5-4 victory against the Vegas Golden Knights at Rogers Arena, his 55th point of the season made him the franchise’s most productive defenceman in three decades.

Sitting on six goals and 49 assists in 68 games – the 22-year-old has missed six games this season, two of them last week due to what he said is bronchitis – Hughes also has a chance to eclipse Dennis Kearns’ record for assists by a defenceman: 55, set in 1977.

Hughes wants eight wins over the next eight games. But if he gets nine points or seven assists, he’ll make Canuck history.

“It would be an incredible moment, a special honour,” he said. “What is it, 52 years for the Canucks (in the NHL)? To do that would be pretty cool, but I haven't really thought about it too much. I'll have the opportunity to do it. If I don't do it this year, it will happen next year. That's how I feel. But we've got eight games to go here and at this point, it's just about the wins.

“Do we have a big-time chance to make it? Probably not, but anything can happen. We can beat any team, especially when we're playing good. And we have Demmer (goalie Thatcher Demko). We’ve just got to worry about Arizona, and then it's only seven games, and then six. Just keep going.”

Hughes has been going all season. He was the Canucks’ best skater when the team staggered to a 6-14-2 start, inflicting damage to their season that will probably prove fatal. And under Boudreau, he has gotten even better with added responsibility.

Hughes sounded as raspy as The Godfather when he spoke to reporters after Tuesday’s win, but was well enough to handle 25:24 of ice time in his second game back from illness.

“I had COVID two months ago and I didn't feel a thing with that,” Hughes said. “But this, I was really sick. They're saying it's bronchitis. I was just, like, genuinely sick. I’m still feeling it.

“Before I had COVID. . . that whole month of January and into February, I thought I was playing the best hockey I've played in the NHL. I scored in overtime last night, but I didn't love my game. I think I can be better. Hopefully in the last seven or eight games, I can find that again.”

Quinn Hughes at 80 per cent is still better than all but a handful of defencemen the Canucks have had over five decades. He is certainly the most agile, best-skating blue-liner they’ve ever had.

“His evasiveness, just the smoothness with which he gets away with from players, I always find amazing,” Boudreau said. “He doesn't look like he's exerting himself too much, and then the next thing you know, he's so good on his edges that he can get away from people, and then he makes that pass that makes him special.”

“Sometimes it doesn't even look like he's skating too fast or too hard, and he's just blowing by guys,” veteran Luke Schenn said of his defence partner. “I think the one thing that kind of goes unnoticed, too, is how well he is playing defensively. He's playing penalty-kill minutes now, he's playing top matchups. I think in the past, it has probably been a little more sheltered minutes. Now he's getting those big matchups and also, you know, having to contribute and carry the mail offensively.”

Given the chance by Boudreau to kill penalties, Hughes has logged 79:13 of shorthanded TOI and the Canucks have been outscored only 6-4 by opposing power plays over the equivalent of four full periods. Hughes’ goals-against-per-60 minutes of 4.54 is easily the best among Vancouver defenceman on the penalty kill, less than half what the team has yielded under PK1 blue-liners Tyler Myers (11.87/60) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (10.07/60).

After vowing to be better defensively than he was last season, Hughes has been excellent at five-on-five, controlling 52.9 per cent of shot attempts despite difficult matchups. Against Vegas, for instance, 8:22 of Hughes’ 18:57 of even-strength ice time was against Jack Eichel, 9:33 when Shea Theodore was on the ice for the Knights.

“He continues to take steps in the right direction here,” Schenn said. “He's going to continue to put up a big amount of points in this league for a long time.”

Hughes said all the games the Canucks have played during their playoff chase, and these next eight, are vital preparation for next season regardless of what happens this month.

“We're going to try our best here on out and hopefully we can make it,” he said. “But if not, we're finishing really strong. And building our culture, these games are important in that sense. Since Bruce came, we're like 28-13-8, which is pretty impressive. There's no reason to think we can't do that next year and just go the whole year like that. I'm confident about that.”

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