When the Vancouver Canucks step onto the ice for their next game, at home against the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday, it’ll mark the beginning of the final month of the regular season.
The Canucks have designs on extending their season into the playoffs for the first time in five years, though that doesn’t look like it’ll come easy to them.
Three straight losses on their eastern road trip have sounded alarm bells in Canucks Nation — as a fanbase used to enduring pain braces themselves for what lies ahead.
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Life without Jacob Markstrom hasn’t gone well, as Thatcher Demko allowed 10 goals in three games since temporarily taking the reigns as the No. 1 goalie. Meanwhile, newcomer Louis Domingue allowed four goals during his lone start in Vancouver’s collapse in Columbus.
While Markstrom clearly has patched up holes in the dam this season, it should be noted that Vancouver didn’t need all-world goaltending to get some results on their road trip.
Average goaltending and a better effort from the team’s 18 skaters should have been enough to beat the lowly Ottawa Senators. Demko, and every other NHL goalie, should have stopped Auston Matthews’ bad angle shot in Toronto.
With a .903 SV%, Demko ranks 44th out of 56 goaltenders in save percentage, among netminders that have played more than 20 games this season. Domingue (.882 SV%), for his part, is tied for dead-last in save percentage among goalies with at least 10 games played.
When you combine below-average goaltending with a team that gives up the fourth-most shots against in the NHL, the results are predictable.
The loss to the Blue Jackets on Sunday was the most painful yet this season, as Vancouver blew a 3-1 lead with less than eight minutes to go in the game, causing them to leave Columbus without a point. As much as that was a punch to the gut of Canucks players and coaches, they’re still in a good position to make the playoffs — provided they don’t collapse completely.
Analytics website SportsClubStats.com still lists the Canucks’ chances of making the playoffs at 82.4% and projects Vancouver’s odds of making the playoffs at 74.8% if they go just 8-8-1 in their remaining games.
The Canucks have 17 games left on their schedule, with games in hand on most of the teams they’re battling with for a playoff spot, including Calgary (two games in hand), Winnipeg (two), and Arizona (two). Ten of their remaining games will be played at Rogers Arena, where Vancouver is an impressive 20-7-4 this season, compared to just 14-18-2 on the road.
But Vancouver doesn’t get an “easy” game (i.e., a team that’s out of playoff contention) until March 20. Before then, the Canucks must play Arizona twice, Colorado twice, Columbus again, the New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets, and Tampa Bay Lightning.
With Markstrom likely out at least another three weeks, it’s up to Travis Green’s remaining healthy players to keep the team afloat until then.
— Rob Williams (@RobTheHockeyGuy) March 2, 2020
Wednesday’s game against the Coyotes is the biggest one of the season to date, and the team needs to treat it as such. Arizona, who sits just below the playoff bar, plays Vancouver three times in the final month — so you can bet they view the Canucks as a team they likely need to leapfrog to reach the postseason.
The Canucks will need to be stingy defensively, something they were for 52 minutes against the Blue Jackets but haven’t been on too many nights this season.
This is a huge test for Vancouver’s young players, who have been their best performers all season. Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat will continue to be leaned on at both ends of the rink, while rookie Adam Gaudette scored 30 points in 55 games in a mostly sheltered third-line centre role.
How many minutes can Quinn Hughes play on the back end? It feels like we’re about to find out.
It’s also a test for Vancouver’s veterans, particularly on the back end. Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, and Tyler Myers play big minutes, and they need to be reliable.
The Canucks have a huge opportunity ahead of them in the next month. With the possible exception of the Vegas Golden Knights, the Pacific Division is wide open. If they get hot at the right time, the Canucks could go on a run with a healthy Markstrom, Brock Boeser, and Josh Leivo.
But none of this will mean anything if they don’t do enough in the last month.
Until then, Canucks Nation will continue holding its collective breath.