By: Brayden Fengler / February 24, 2021
When the regular season format was first announced for this year, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who felt confident about the Vancouver Canucks’ chances. To make the playoffs the Canucks just need to be better than three other teams in Canada, and back before the season started, that felt more inevitable outcome, than something they needed to prove. However, 23 games into this shortened season the reality is that the Canucks aren’t just one of the three worst teams in the Canadian group, they are very nearly the absolute worst team in the North Division, only ahead of the Ottawa Senators in the standings.
With a large chunk of the season still ahead of the Canucks, do they simply have no choice but to roll over and accept their fate? Or are there things they can do to help correct the course? Hopefully for fans, the answer sits with the latter of the two options. But before Vancouver tries to build themselves back up, they need to take note of the biggest obstacles that are working to tear them down.
Canucks Killed by Overtime Losses
In two out of the Canucks last five contests the team has been fortunate enough to extend play into an extra frame. In both cases their OT appearance was gifted to them by a late third period goal and some fantastic offensive zone puck position, while playing with an empty net. These are the kind of comebacks that one would assume, would lend the team some momentum heading into overtime. Disappointingly for the Canucks, both recent instances of play after 60 minutes were ended abruptly by the opposing team (the Calgary Flames on Feb 15th and the Winnipeg Jets on February 21st).
In previous years, had the Canucks been playing an out of division team during an OT loss, that outcome would have almost been as good as a win. However, as we all know, every game this year is an in division game. When a team earns one point on a night, that means two more points are going into the pocket of a team that may end up ranking them out of playoff contention. There is no more room for overtime losses this year, if the Vancouver Canucks have their eyes on the playoffs.
The Jet’s sit 3rd in the North Division and the Flames are just outside of a playoff spot at 5th. The location in the standings of both of those teams can still be in reach for the Canucks if they can turn their game around quickly. The Flames sit just one point above Vancouver with 19 points to the Canucks’ 18. If the Canucks had walked away as the victors from their overtime encounter with the Flames, then they would be the ones sitting on the edge of a playoff spot. Despite how it might feel right now, this is a testament to how close the playoffs can be if the Canucks don’t let them slip away with these costly losses.
They Need to Make It Count Against Montreal
It’s no secret by now that the Montreal Canadiens and more specifically Tyler Toffoli have the Canucks’ number this year. In their five meetings so far this season the Canucks have only left one of them with a victory and have given 8 points to the Habs on a silver platter. Thankfully for the Canucks, the Canadiens will only be facing off against them four more times this season. However, the Habs sit just above the Flames in the standings, holding that final playoff spot. This makes the last few games against Montreal, absolutely pivotal. As nice as it would be for the Canucks to pull out series wins against the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs, the teams they really need to beat are the ones on the edge of playoff contention, like Calgary and Montreal.
The Canucks’ last meeting with the Habs came at the beginning of the month on February 2nd, in a 5-2 loss. This game came a week and a half before the Canucks owner proclaimed his confidence for the team. Since the Canucks have played the Habs, they have lost 8 of their last 10, making it’s clear that Montreal is far from the only problem this team faces. The Canucks goals differential against Montreal is -12, and it only grew in the teams’ most recent matchups.
The Canucks’ defence core is continuing to find its footing, in situations that plagued them during earlier games this season, including games against Montreal. However, based on their performance in games they’ve played since they faced Montreal, the Canucks are going to need more than just marginal improvements on the defensive side.
The Two Big Mountains the Canucks Need to Climb
It seems like everyone has been so focused on what the Habs have done to the Canucks this year, that it almost feels like we glanced over the 0-3 record the Canucks were awarded after their recent tilts with the Leafs. That outcome is especially concerning for the Canucks as they still have six contests left against Toronto. The Canucks of course also passed along a similar beating to the Ottawa Senators, in their 3-0 series win. Which makes Vancouver’s next six games against the Senators absolute must wins.
If they perform just as poorly against the Leafs the next time around, then the Ottawa series could help keep the Canucks afloat if they can secure those wins. With that said, the fact that the Canucks have played two more games than their oppintens already this year, they can’t just plan to break even between series. The Canucks need to come out on top against Toronto and Ottawa, in order to help secure any ground they might make in the standings. Because unfortunately for the Canucks, Toronto isn’t the only high ranking team who has a lot of games left to play against them.
The Edmonton Oilers are the next wild card for the Canucks, as they have more games with Edmonton still on the schedule than any other team. Edmonton sits just below Toronto in the standings. This must make it nerve wracking for the Canucks, knowing that not only do they have less games in hand than everyone else, but they also have the most games left to play against the two best teams in the division.
Like the Canucks, Edmonton doesn’t have elite goaltending, and they also have a star player that loves to ring shots off the post, as we saw in last night’s 4-3 Oilers victory. In many ways Edmonton may be one of the most evenly suited competitors the Canucks will face this season. This is perhaps most evident by the fact that the Canucks were able to effortlessly put up three early goals against Edmonton in last night’s game, just before Edmonton turned around and did the exact same.
On the flip side of that, Canucks’ fans also got to witness what it’s like to successfully execute a full team effort passing play, ending with the puck on Connor McDavid’s stick and then the back of Demko’s net.
How Do They Get Out of This One?
The Edmonton series will likely be the saving grace for the Canucks, or the nail in the coffin. That series could make the road to the playoffs a lot easier for Vancouver, but there are still a number of other things that would have to go right for them. They need “easy” wins against Ottawa, yes, but they also can’t lose many of the few games they have left against the teams who are on the edge of the payoffs, like Calgary and Montreal. All the while having to worry about the division leading Maple Leafs looking to continue their series sweep against them.
In some ways, the Canucks are lucky that they only need to worry about these six teams this year. But even still, everything they need to juggle in order to sustain playoff hopes, seems like it might just be too much for this current Canucks roster to handle. With trades difficult to navigate this year and an owner who wants to stay the course, it’s on this crew to show that the team we saw earlier in 2020, wasn’t just a flash in the pan.