For the first time all season, there’s no pressure on the Vancouver Canucks.
Battling back from the worst COVID-19 outbreak in North American professional sports, given that it involved the P.1 variant, not much is expected out of the Canucks going forward. Players aren’t in optimal game shape, not to mention the fact that they were already facing a steep hill to climb in the North Division.
It will take a lot to get back into the playoff race, though Sunday’s big win over the Toronto Maple Leafs was a good start.
Quinn Hughes compared the feeling to winning a playoff game. Head coach Travis Green conceded that it was a “special” win.
“This isn’t just your regular win during the regular season. It’s a special win,” said Green. “We’ve gone through a lot here with our group over the last few weeks. It was a hard game. You’re playing a really good hockey team on the other side, and [I’m] proud of our group with how we stuck with it and won tonight.”
Good feelings aside, one look at the North Division standings should bring everyone back to reality, as they’re still 10 points back of the Montreal Canadiens for the last playoff spot.
The Canucks do have four games in hand though, plus the Canadiens have struggled this month and were shut out by the Ottawa Senators in their last game. Vancouver will need a minor miracle still, especially given the current state of their team, but if they can string a few wins together, it might just get them believing again.
Hey, stranger things have happened.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our guys in that room,” said captain Bo Horvat, who led the Canucks with two goals and an assist, including the OT winner. “Obviously to score that goal and to get the win for not only the guys in the organization, [but] our families [as well]. It definitely felt great.”
“It was tough. I’m not going to say it was a breeze, by any means… As the game went on, I felt better.”
So-called moral victories have become a punchline in recent years for Canucks fans, as the team struggled to get actual wins.
Not much is expected out of the Canucks going forward, but despite how they’re feeling physically, these are competitors. Just being competitive down the stretch would qualify as a moral win, but Horvat wants more than that.
“When you hear that kind of stuff, it just fuels the fire, and just makes you want to prove people wrong and prove to ourselves that we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win every single night,” Horvat said when it was suggested that many people aren’t expecting much from them. “Every single guy wants to win in there, and you know we proved that again tonight.”
It’s one thing to do it once, it’ll be another thing to string a few wins together. The Canucks play every second day until April 28, including a rematch with the Leafs on Tuesday and four straight games against the Senators after that.
You can’t get on a winning streak without getting the first win though, so in that respect, it’s mission accomplished so far.
“I think we needed something like this to kind of drive us here for the schedule coming up, it’s not going to be easy. To give our group confidence right away, it’s going to bring some excitement in the room that we need for the games coming forward.”
Recognizing the difficult task that lies ahead, Green wasn’t getting too ahead of himself regarding the P word.
“We didn’t get off to the start that we wanted this season and we’ve played some really strong hockey for a little bit now and haven’t always gotten the results we wanted, but our group is competitive group,” said Green. “They love winning and they’re resilient. You hope that this win can give them some belief in what they can do.
“Especially coming off COVID, and being off the ice for so long, there’s going to be some doubt for sure within your mind. A win like this will go a long way to help.”
What to monitor going forward is how many players in the lineup can get back up to full speed as quick as possible, as well as how many players can rejoin the team in the coming days.
The Canucks no longer have any players on the NHL COVID list, but they were still without Thatcher Demko, Nate Schmidt, Jake Virtanen, Tyler Motte, and Olli Juolevi due to COVID concerns. Elias Pettersson is also still missing in action due to injury, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll return this season.
The month of May will be a beast for the Canucks, who are scheduled to play 12 games in 19 nights. It’ll probably still be too little, too late, but if they can inch closer to the playoff bar in April, it might just give them a crucial ingredient for an improbable comeback: belief.