This season hasn’t gone according to plan for the Vancouver Canucks.
The team lost talent in the offseason due to years of mostly self-inflicted bungling of the salary cap, and it has showed on the ice. The Canucks came out of the gates slow, showing off a leaky defence and goaltending in January and the first week of February.
Their play improved in the second half of February, but they still couldn’t buy a win. So as the calendar turned to March, Vancouver was 8-14-2, which was a tough hole to climb out of.
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Truthfully, it’ll probably be too big a hole for the Canucks, who after riding some sensational goaltending by Thatcher Demko in March, have now lost three in a row. They’re just two points back of a playoff spot, but the team they’re trying to catch — the Montreal Canadiens — have six games in hand.
Despite having just 19 games left to catch up, Canucks forward Antoine Roussel says he still believes.
“Like I always say, when there’s a will, there’s a chance,” Roussel told reporters after practice. “That’s the attitude we’ve got to have and that’s the mindset also… We’ve got a few days here to recharge our batteries to just get away from the grind, and refocus and be ready for the next few weeks that’s going to be a hard battle and hard push for us, and hopefully we’re going to be able to pull it off.”
In order to “pull it off,” the Canucks will need to go on an improbable streak. Analytics website MoneyPuck.com currently lists their odds of making the playoffs at 3.3%. The Athletic currently projects the playoff bar to be at 67 points, which would mean the Canucks would have to go 16-3-0 down the stretch to make it in.
Everyone in the organization is surely frustrated at where the Canucks find themselves, but Roussel also expressed his annoyance at the schedule. The 31-year-old NHL veteran tried to explain what it’s like for hockey players that want to perform every night, but sometimes can’t play up to their optimal level because of fatigue.
“It’s like when we played in Montreal, we flew right after the game [on March 20]. It’s a five-hour flight, we got [into Vancouver] at Montreal time, [5:30 am on March 21]. We play the next day [on March 22 at home to the Winnipeg Jets]. We come in first period, we are flat. We’re kind of sloppy, we don’t play great. We’re expected to win, obviously because we want to, but at the end of the day it’s kind of hard because our legs are not quite there.”
The Canucks lost 4-0 in the game Roussel is referencing, and they lost to the Jets again two nights later 5-1. It was the tail end of a stretch of seven games in 12 days.
“Our best players had played like every other day, 20 minutes and up. It’s been hard, it’s travel, the jet-lag. It has not been easy, for sure.”
Hockey players don’t like giving excuses for poor play, so they generally shy away from anything that could be misconstrued as such. While many issues concerning the condensed schedule this season are the same for all teams, the Canucks have seemed to get the short end of the stick. In fact, head coach Travis Green called their schedule “brutal” back on February 10.
That doesn’t mean that their play can be excused entirely — certainly not — but certainly Roussel believes it is at least part of the reason for their struggles.
The Canucks are getting a much-needed week off, but despite having not played a game since Wednesday, they still lead the NHL in games played. Some teams in the North Division are now starting to catch up to them, but not all.
Four Habs games were recently postponed — three against the Edmonton Oilers and one against the Ottawa Senators — meaning that Montreal continues to hold six games in hand on Vancouver.
The Canucks, by contrast, began their season without J.T. Miller and Jordie Benn due to COVID protocols, but had to play through it.
“When I look at teams like Montreal, like, they had three breaks. It’s not fair at all,” Roussel added.
“They had one break early in the season like we are on right now. Then they had another shorter one… It’s not something that they wanted to [have], but they had two players on the COVID list and all of a sudden they have another full week off to recover, to get people back from injuries. All of a sudden Ben Chiarot’s looking to come back.
“And meanwhile the Canucks have played like 37 games.”
While every team is scheduled to play the same number of games this season, the Canadiens have been afforded a better chance to ease into the year, with more practice time. The Habs had a five-day break in January and a seven-day break in February. The longest break the Canucks have had prior to this week was a four-day break at the end of February.
“When I look at it, yeah, it’s frustrating… You don’t want to look for excuses, but it’s just pointing at facts. When you come in at 5:30 in the morning and you’re [playing] the next night, guess what, you’re probably going to be tired.”