VANCOUVER – When the Vancouver Canucks began their ambitious expedition three weeks ago to climb back into a playoff spot, looking up at the North Division standings would have been like looking up at the North Face of the Eiger.
That famous limestone wall in the Alps is terrifyingly high and steep and usually covered with ice. And then the Canucks started their climb without crampons, losing their best forward, Elias Pettersson, due to a reported wrist injury that has proven to be far more troubling than initially diagnosed.
When Canucks captain Bo Horvat hobbled to the dressing room during Monday’s 4-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets after being struck just above his skate by teammate Alex Edler’s slapshot, it was like the mountaineers were losing their ropes, too.
Free climb the Eiger? Not a chance. Which is why coach Travis Green’s surprising announcement Tuesday that Horvat is “day-to-day” was extraordinarily good news for the Canucks.
It looked like Horvat, who has played 240 consecutive National Hockey League games, might be done for the season. Instead, he could play Wednesday’s rematch against the Jets or, at least, be available one week later against the Calgary Flames after the Canucks’ six-day schedule break.
“I'd call it day-to-day right now,” Green told reporters on Zoom as the Canucks held a spartan practice at Rogers Arena. “I haven't ruled him out for tomorrow.”
It is worth remembering that Green also originally characterized Pettersson’s injury, sustained and/or exacerbated during back-to-back games in Winnipeg on March 1 and 2, as “day-to-day” before further tests revealed a more serious problem.
But Green said Tuesday that medical imaging had already been completed on Horvat, and the coach is hopeful he’ll play Wednesday.
His early exit on Monday left the Canucks without any of their top four centres: Pettersson, Horvat, Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle. There is a chance that Sutter could also play Wednesday after missing one game, Green said, and Beagle is getting closer to playing after missing the last six with an undisclosed injury.
The return of Horvat and Pettersson is absolutely necessary if the Canucks are going to continue upwards.
That playoff peak still looks dauntingly far away and the route almost vertical. But the Canucks have surprised us by climbing well above the valley floor so far, going 8-3-1 in March even without Pettersson.
The key, as climbers and hockey players know, is to not look too far ahead lest you lose hope or footing. Just worry about the next step.
“You know, the guys that are playing, they just care about playing well and doing what they can to win the game,” Green said. “[Injuries are] not talked about as much as you think in a locker room. The guys that are in the lineup are just concerned with getting the job done, really. Probably coaches think about it a little more, the fans, media. But the players are worried about playing their best game and worrying about themselves, trying to make sure that they play the way we need to win.”
With 20 games remaining, the 16-17-3 Canucks probably need 28 points or 14 wins, minimum, just to give themselves a chance of making the Stanley Cup tournament in May. Each game they lose, the climb gets steeper.
“I'm definitely not thinking about the math,” Green continued. “We're just worrying about the game tomorrow. We've been playing some pretty good hockey here as of late. I think it's important that you don't start looking 10 games down the road, 15 games down the road. Just worry about the next game.
"If we were in a playoff spot right now, we'd be saying the same thing. We're not looking at numbers saying we've got to win five in a row. We've got to win the next game and worry about the next game, and then reset, take our break, and get ready to play again.”
The Canucks have built themselves a trade-deadline safety net by claiming forwards Jimmy Vesey and Travis Boyd from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Assuming general manager Jim Benning doesn’t flip them ahead of the April 12 trade deadline, Vesey and Boyd are good enough depth players to fill a couple of holes in the lineup should the Canucks finally become deadline sellers and leverage players on expiring contracts for assets.
But Benning also knows how tirelessly his players have worked to climb back towards the playoff race. In management’s view, and for the sake of that ever-evolving team culture, they probably deserve at least a little more time to prove that their ascent has not stalled.
Benning can afford to wait a little longer. Judging by the unprecedented gridlock amid one of the most challenging trading markets NHL GMs have ever navigated, waiting may not be a matter of choice.
“Obviously, a few of the guys out right now are pretty important to our lineup -- certainly some of our more reliable guys out there,” veteran defenceman Tyler Myers said. “We know how important each and every game is but. . . the mindset stays the same. We'd like those guys back as fast as possible, but the focus is on tomorrow night. Last night's done.”
Hammer in another piton and try to keep going higher.