Let’s face it, if the Vancouver Canucks want to pull off the near impossible, they have a lot of work to do. Like, a ton. Which is why it qualifies as near impossible in the first place. But no matter how this season ends for them, they can look back to Sunday night and take an enormous measure of satisfaction. And they might also look back and lament how an absolutely dreadful start submarined their season far more than a global pandemic did.
Nobody would have blamed the Canucks if they had decided to just show up for their first game in more than three weeks. Nor would anyone have found fault with them if they had spent the evening sucking more wind than an out-of-shape beer leaguer and giving up multiple odd-man rushes. There is no mercy rule in the NHL, but it would not have been outrageous for the Canucks to have lobbied for one Sunday night.
Instead, they relied on their own 4-H Club – Holtby, Horvat, Hoglander and heart – riding otherworldly goaltending from Holtby, an inspired performance by their captain and 30 quality minutes from veteran defenseman Tyler Myers after Alex Edler was ejected for kneeing Toronto’s Zach Hyman, to win their first game back from COVID, 3-2 in overtime over the Toronto Maple Leafs. (If you’re a Leaf fan this morning and you’re concerned about your team’s lack of killer instinct, you have reason to be. If there was one game where the Leafs should have played to their identity and turned the game into a track meet, this was the one. And that goaltending, though.)
“This isn’t just your regular win during the regular season,” said the Canucks raspy-voiced coach Travis Green. “It’s a special win. We’ve gone through a lot with our group here over the past few weeks.”
Going into the game, Horvat stressed the Canucks were not going to use COVID as a crutch the rest of the season, and that those who thought they would get steamrolled would be proved wrong. Between coughs after the game, Horvat beamed with pride with the way the Canucks responded. “I couldn’t be (more proud) of our guys in that room and the way they manned up and stuck with the process and willed their way to that win,” Horvat said. “To score that (overtime) goal and get the win for the organization and our families and our fans definitely felt great.”
So now the question, and it’s one worth asking, is whether the Canucks can rally around each other and turn this into something that could get them back in the playoff picture. Some of that will depend on whether the Canucks were riding a one-game adrenaline or they can use their resilient effort in their first game back as a springboard to something truly special. Either way, it will probably feel like pushing a boulder up a steep hill.
Consider that after their win Sunday night, the Canucks are 10 points behind the Montreal Canadiens with four games in hand. If the Canadiens were playing with any level of consistency, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. But since Dominique Ducharme took over behind the bench for Claude Julien, the Canadiens have been a very pedestrian 10-9-5. Over their past 24 games, the Canucks haven’t been any better, going 11-10-3. So let’s say for argument’s sake that the Canadiens continue to struggle and go 6-6-2 over their final 14 games. That would give them 61 points, meaning the Canucks would have to earn at least 25 points in their final 18 games, or post a .694 points percentage, in order to usurp the Canadiens. To put that into perspective, only three teams have winning percentages that high or higher so far this season.
So there’s a pretty good chance the Canucks will be on the sidelines when the season ends May 19. But for this organization, it’s just as much about displaying resilience and fortitude as it is about trying to qualify for the post-season. “I don’t want to start getting ahead of (Sunday night’s) win,” Green said. “You would hope it would give them some belief. But I also believe our group had belief already. We didn’t get off to the start we wanted this season and we played some really strong hockey and haven’t always got the results we wanted, but our group is a competitive group. They love winning and they’re resilient. And you hope this win can give them some belief in what they can do.”