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The Vancouver Canucks are on the edge of the playoffs, just a couple points back from the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. The players in the room, they’re believers. They can see the standings and know they’ve got a chance to prove the doubters wrong.
The Canucks’ management seems to believe in the team as well, or at least believes that there’s value in a young team playing important games down the stretch, gaining experience for the future.
If the Canucks make the playoffs, however, they’ll then have to face one of the top teams in the Western Conference in the first round. This past week, they saw just how poorly that could go when they faced the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks (for the moment, we’ll ignore the shutoutloss to the bottom-of-the-West Anaheim Ducks).
On Saturday, the Canucks faced the Flames, who had the best goal differential in the West. The Flames boast four forwards with more than 20 goals and five players producing more than a point per game, including defenceman Mark Giordano. They’re a dominant offensive powerhouse.
It showed against the Canucks. The Flames dominated the game, including a 20-shot second period that was seemingly spent entirely in the Canucks’ end of the ice. The Flames finished with a whopping 47 shots on goal, with the vast majority coming from dangerous areas around the net and in the slot.
It took one of the best games of Jacob Markstrom’s career to keep the Canucks in the game and a couple marvelous plays by Elias Pettersson to tie it and force overtime and the shootout, where Pettersson scored the only goal for the Canucks and Markstrom shut the door at the other end.
Markstrom and Pettersson were magnificent, but if it was a playoff preview, the Canucks are in serious trouble. Generally speaking, you can’t get out-shot by a 2-to-1 ratio and expect to win a playoff series and there’s no shootout in the playoffs as an escape hatch.
Monday’s game against the Sharks was even worse. Thanks to injuries to Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko, the Canucks were forced to start 19-year-old goaltender Michael DiPietro. They then proceeded to hang him out to dry.
It wasn’t just that DiPietro was a raw rookie, who clearly wasn’t ready to make his first NHL start, but that the Canucks looked completely out-classed by the Sharks, who seemed to create Grade-A scoring chances at will. The Sharks picked apart the Canucks’ defence and the Canucks seemed unable to move the puck up the ice until halfway through the first period when it was already 3-0.
There are certainly plenty of excuses for the Canucks, but they can’t afford to use any of them. Yes, Alex Edler was out with a concussion for both games and Brandon Sutter missed the game against the Sharks with an injury of his own. But every team deals with significant injuries late in the season and in the playoffs. The Sharks were even missing Erik Karlsson on Monday, as he’s missed a couple weeks with a lower body injury.
Instead, the Canucks need to take these games as a wake-up call. The players need to recognize the level of performance that will be required to compete with the likes of the Sharks and Flames, and work to elevate their games. Management, on the other hand, needs to recognize that the team simply isn’t at that level yet and the rebuild isn’t over.
The Canucks could still make the playoffs and, with this wake-up call, maybe they’ll be more competitive against one of the top teams in the West in the first round. But there’s still more work to be done before this team is a legitimate contender.
Stick-taps and Glove-drops
I’m dropping the gloves with Jim Benning and the Canucks for putting Michael DiPietro in an impossible situation against the Sharks. They had over a month to address their goaltending depth since losing Mike McKenna on waivers; DiPietro never should have been forced into action.
A tap of the stick to DiPietro, however, who rolled with the punches and was relatively upbeat and positive after the game. “Definitely a dream come true getting the start,” he said. “It was a good experience.”
19, 7, 15 - Michael DiPietro isn’t the youngest goaltender to play a game for the Canucks. Troy Gamble was 19 years, 7 months, and 15 days old when he made his debut in 1986, 18 days younger than DiPietro.
7 - DiPietro’s debut wasn’t the first time this season the Canucks have given up 7 goals. The Flames scored 5 on Jacob Markstrom in the second game of the season, then added two empty net goals in the final minutes.