The Vancouver Canucks find themselves in the midst of a tough five-game stretch, the first four on the road, against Central Division opponents.
Wednesday they won in Colorado, then had to turn around and face a very tough Minnesota Wild squad on Thursday, one that Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau said he believes is actually deeper than Colorado’s.
And most consider the Avalanche a Stanley Cup contender.
The Canucks’ playoff dream still lives, though barely, and everything is truly on the line for them this week.
Here’s a look at the week to eat:
Games remaining is the predator that is stalking the Canucks’ playoff hopes. After Thursday’s game in Minnesota against the Wild, the Canucks will have just 16 games left. Every team, other than the Vegas Golden Knights, have more games remaining than the Canucks.
And therein lies Vancouver’s playoff reality.
Going into the Minnesota game, the Canucks sat just three points back from the Dallas Stars for the second wild-card playoff spot — but Dallas had played three fewer games.
The Canucks just have no margin for error. They can afford no more than four losses on the season. If they lose any more than that, they won’t be able to get to 95 points and it’s just about certain that will be the minimum total for a team to make the playoffs will be 95 points.
On Saturday the Canucks are in Big D to face the stars (4 p.m., PT. TV: Sportsnet. Radio: Sportsnet 650). The Canucks won their only previous meeting this season 6-3, way back in November. After the win, the Canucks and Stars both stood a roughly one-in-three chance of making the playoffs, according to HockeyViz.com. But their paths have diverged greatly since then and even with the Canucks having changed coaches and gone on a remarkable run under Bruce Boudreau, their playoff hopes sit at just 14 per cent while the Stars have a 67-per-cent chance of playing in the post-season.
Credit Dallas’s strong home-ice record — 21-8-1 — as a big part of their story. The Canucks, by comparison, are just 14-13-5 at home.
On Monday the Canucks are in St. Louis to close off a four-game road trip. the Blues are in a three-way standings battle with the Wild and Stars. The Blues are a very stout defensive team, tied for seventh fewest goals-against per game in the league at the time of this writing. They’re fifth best in goals-for per game. In other words, they’re one of the league’s toughest teams. They’ve won 20 of their 31 home games to date. They’d be talked about as Stanley Cup contenders if they didn’t play in the same division as the Colorado Avalanche.
Oh, and the Canucks face them again next Wednesday, at home at Rogers Arena.
Bo Horvat: Heading into Thursday’s game against the Wild, the Canucks’ captain had four goals in his previous five games. Horvat is now just three goals shy of his career high from him, set in 2018-19. He has long said he thinks his most essential attribute of him as a leader is how he performs on the ice and there’s little doubt he’s doing the best he can in that regard.
Tucker Poolman: The veteran defenseman hasn’t played in almost two months because of migraines. Boudreau said last week that Poolman has suffered a setback in his recovery from him. He had been practicing with his teammates for almost two weeks and appeared ready to return to action, but he’s not on the current road trip and with time starting to run short on the season you wonder if he’ll even find a way back into the lineup, especially if there’s a late-season cameo for Jack Rathbone.
Question of the week
“Who will be the backup next season?” — Phil M., Vancouver.
Pretty clearly it won’t be Jaroslav Halák. The Canucks’ backup goalie had a redemption game on Wednesday, no doubt, but it’s been a strange ride for the veteran this season.
He has never played this little in his career and while most would say the 36 year old shouldn’t be surprised, given his age, it pretty clearly was. Coming into this season, the Canucks knew they needed a veteran backup but the options were slim. Thomas Greiss and Brian Elliott were the only other options considered, but in the end former GM Jim Benning went with Halák.
It’s likely that Halák’s experience and long period of success carried the day, especially since the Canucks were looking for a goalie who could play more than a conventional backup might if it turned out that Demko couldn’t carry the kind of load usually expected of an NHL starter at 60 starts or more.
Demko’s career high in regular-season starts was 46 for the American Hockey League’s Utica Comets in 2017-18. Other than his stint on the COVID-19 protocol list, Demko has been healthy this season (52 games played and counting) and as a result Halák hasn’t been needed as an insurance policy.
And so next year the Canucks will surely expect that Demko will be able to start 60 or so games again. As a backup, they have two options: Either they go hunting for another veteran free agent or they look to Abbotsford Canuck Spencer Martin, who showed so well in his emergency stint as Vancouver’s starter while Demko and Halák were both on the COVID list.
That seems most likely at this point.
The side note in all this is that the backup this year might have been Michael DiPietro, but the prospect barely played last season — four games with Utica — and needed game time this year.
Now DiPietro has been supplanted in the pecking order by Martin, a situation that came about only because of the budgetary decision before the 2020-21 season to not sign a veteran goaltender on a cheap contract to serve as the team’s taxi squad goalie. Instead, DiPietro was kept as the No. 3 in Vancouver and barely played as a result, a big loss for his development.
The final knock-on effect to all this has been on Arturs Silovs, who became the No. 3 man in Abbotsford this season and barely played (10 appearances) before being reassigned to Trois Rivières of the East Coast Hockey League last week. He’d have played a lot more in Abbotsford if DiPietro had been ready to back up Demko this season.
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