The Vancouver Canucks suddenly have everything going for them except time.
Their 5-2 road victory Sunday against the New York Rangers, which followed the Canucks’ 7-1 home win Thursday against the Calgary Flames, gives Vancouver a three-game winning streak for the first time since December.
At 26-22-6, the Canucks are four games over .500 for the first time in nearly two years, and their 69 per cent winning percentage since Bruce Boudreau became coach on Dec. 6 ties Vancouver (18-7-4 since then) with the mighty Toronto Maple Leafs (17-7-2) for the best record in Canada.
Goalie Thatcher Demko continues to play like a Vezina Trophy candidate, elite forwards J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson are driving the attack, and even the Canucks’ wonky special teams look better.
It’s just too bad the team was 22 games into the National Hockey League season before it started playing like this.
The Canucks are racing the Edmonton Oilers, Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks for a wildcard playoff spot in the Western Conference as much as they are racing time.
They have 28 games remaining, starting Monday against the New Jersey Devils.
That probably won’t be enough. But with five wins in six games – three of them against teams that are among the NHL’s best – the Canucks appear to have found another gear just in time for the finishing kick to the regular season.
Matthew Highmore and fellow fourth-liner Juho Lammikko scored on second-period deflections after first-period goals by Tanner Pearson and Tyler Myers, both set up by J.T. Miller, put the Canucks up 2-0. Pettersson scored into an empty net after a sudden third-period surge by the Rangers allowed Alexis Lafreniere and Ryan Strome to score goals a little more than four minutes apart.
“I think we're just playing with a lot of desperation,” Highmore said. “I mean, not that we weren't in January . . . but I think we've found a little something here. Our group is growing in confidence. We have to continue to keep it going and get points, and you never know what will happen.”
After the Rangers used starting goalie Igor Shesterkin in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York coach Gerard Gallant chose to rest his Vezina and Hart Trophy candidate against the Canucks, who saw backup Alexandar Georgiev. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t still a Vezina candidate on display at Madison Square Garden. Demko had another outstanding game, stopping 31 of 33 shots.
As with the win against the Flames, Demko’s most important saves were in the first period when the score was close. He made point-blank stops against Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.
“I've run out of things to say because, I mean, he's been incredible,” Boudreau said. “The Calgary game wasn't a 7-1 game and this game wasn't a 5-2 game. If it wasn't for Demko early, it would have been a lot different. He comes to play every night.”
PLAYING EVERY NIGHT
It’s far too early to say if last week was a turning point for Canuck readiness and player accountability, part of the evolution in team culture that Boudreau and general manager Patrik Allvin are trying to generate. But since Allvin, in an interview with Sportsnet on Wednesday, challenged players to be better prepared every day, game or practice, and that many had something to prove, the Canucks built leads of 7-0 against the Flames and 4-0 against the Rangers.
On Thursday, Miller said the Canucks had “just set a standard for ourselves for the rest of the year.”
The Canucks certainly met that standard on Sunday to open their four-game trip.
“I don't know if standard is the word,” Boudreau said when asked about it on Zoom. “We're definitely seeing that with every game that goes by, the next game is way more important. I mean, we're in a playoff chase. We have to be ready for every game. That's what we have to do. I don't know if it's any more readiness or whatever, but we're playing to win.”
How good has Miller been the last six weeks?
There has been a lot of attention, justified, on Pettersson’s mid-season turnaround. Coming back from a serious wrist injury last spring, the Canuck star scuffled through the first 37 games this season with just six goals and 17 points. But he has 11 goals and 10 assists in 17 games since Jan. 15 despite rarely playing at five-on-five with Vancouver’s top wingers.
During the same time period, Miller, who missed two games while in COVID protocol, has nine goals and 23 points. His 1.53 points-per-game is fourth in the NHL since Jan. 15, behind only Maple Leafs Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, and the Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk.
No wonder teams are bidding on Miller ahead of the March 21 trade deadline. And no wonder the Canucks are so wary about trading him now, especially since he has another season under contract at a $5.25 million US salary that ranks 172nd in the NHL.