Trent Leith / April 23, 2021
The Canucks defied all expectations in their return to the ice, after their one-week break, immediately followed by the worst COVID-19 outbreak the NHL has seen to date. When the Canucks returned to game action after over 3 weeks off, expectations were all but nil. The playoff chances seemed withered and the team was expected to be slow and fatigued.
Returning with two games in 3 nights against the division-leading Leafs was to be salt in the wound of this Canucks team. But alas, the hockey gods seemed to reward a team with good hustle and a goalie kick-starting his comeback tour. The Canucks ended up winning both games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and now when you analyze the standings, you can see the semblance of playoff aspirations for Vancouver.
The biggest hurdles the Canucks may face on their road to underdog glory, are entirely out of their control. The first being the collapse of the Montreal Canadiens, and the second is how the schedule could affect the Canucks moving forward. When the Canucks returned to the ice, the schedule the league presented to the recovering players was 19 games in 32 nights, and that’s after the players rejected the first plan to return, of 19 games in 32 nights.
So You’re Saying There’s a Chance?
Well yes, technically. The chance is as fragile as Leafs Twitter after a Canucks win, but it’s a chance nonetheless. Going into games Friday night the Canucks are 10 points behind Montreal for the final playoff spot in the North Division, but they also have 4 games in hand.
To even the playing field the Canucks need to win 5 more games than the Habs down the stretch. To this point in the season, the longest win streak the Canucks have put together is 4 games, and they have only done it once. That win streak came with three out of four wins coming against the Ottawa Senators back in January.
The good news for the Canucks is that they play the Senators three more times in a row, and so far have won five of six against the Sens this season. However, they played the first of their bunch of Ottawa games on Thursday night, and lost 3-0. While not exactly the follow-up performance one would be hoping for, it’s not a dagger in the playoff hopes either. The loss Thursday night might be the first sign of fatigue starting to catch up to the team. Only time will tell as the Canucks start to gear up for their next game Saturday night.
There is no secret that the schedule is probably the biggest hurdle for the team moving forward. The Canucks still have five sets of back-to-backs remaining, including a set of four games in five nights. A stretch this tight would give any team a challenge in maintaining a competitive pace, let alone a team that was ravaged by the P1 variant of COVID-19.
There have been precedents set by teams coming off of COVID-related breaks, in regards to coming back hot, and quickly falling off, unable to maintain the pace they returned with. Both the Dallas Stars and The Montreal Canadiens came out of their breaks firing on all cylinders. Once the adrenaline wore off, either a condensed schedule or general fatigue caught up to the teams and they fell back down to earth.
While the Canucks seem to be defying all odds and expectations, with the exception of certain elements from last night’s loss, it would be wise to expect a similar fall back to earth from the Canucks. The Canucks, led by Bo Horvat, will not go down easy and still expect to be competitive, so time will only tell what the Canucks will have in the tank moving forward.
Habs Go Up in Flames
Since the Canucks season got put on pause due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Montreal Canadiens have won only four of 11 games played. All seven of their losses were regulation losses making sure to double down on their journey down the standings.
Carey Price has only played 4 of the 11 games since the Canucks went down, missing the remainder due to injury. Price returned from injury on Saturday the 17th and after less than 2 games was back out of the lineup with a concussion. Brendan Gallagher also left the team with a broken finger, expected to miss at least six weeks of game action.
While this is obviously bad news for the Canadiens, it could not be better news for the Canucks. While everyone recovered from the illness that tore through the Canucks organization, the Habs did nothing but shoot their own playoff chances in the foot.
Couple this with the Calgary Flames who seemed to have inexplicably flushed their entire 2020/21 campaign down the drain. the Canucks are ripe to rise out of the rubble that is the basement in the North.
While expectations should be tempered, it’s the underdog mentality that helped the Canucks players through their success in the bubble over the summer. The Canucks had a chip on their shoulder and wanted to show that they belonged. The Canucks seem to be playing the same style of we are not going to lose hockey.
Despite being seemingly outplayed in many underlying stats, the goaltending and seeming sheer will to win, are what kept the Canucks on the winning side of their first three games back. While there is virtually no wiggle room for the Canucks in the next month, they still have a small, but respectable chance to claw their way back to the postseason. Canucks fans are already salivating at the idea of squeaking into the 4th spot in the playoffs and getting the chance to watch their team play spoiler against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.