I give the Vancouver Canucks a lot of credit for staying focused enough to win on Monday night. They had to know that their faint playoff hopes evaporated midway through their game, when Montreal picked up a point against Edmonton.
"Missing the playoffs, it's never fun," admitted Bo Horvat after the game
. "That's what you play the game for, and that's what you want to do every single year, is get to the playoffs because anything can happen. It's definitely disappointing that we're not going to get in."
They were trending in the right direction before the six-day break that changed everything, and the Canadiens haven't exactly been world beaters down the stretch. But even if the Canucks' Covid outbreak hadn't happened, I'm not sure they would have been able to catch up.
With one game left to play, the Habs are 10-13-1 since their own Covid shutdown in late March — not great but, to be honest, better than I though they'd do in their own condensed schedule, while missing key players like Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher.
After Monday's overtime loss to Edmonton, the Habs sit three games above .500, with 58 points in 55 games. The Canucks were two games below .500 when they headed into their break in March, and never got higher than the .500 threshold at any point this season. After Monday's win, they've gone 5-8-0 since getting back to work — over 13 games in 23 days.
There's six to go, starting with the second half of the back-to-back in Winnipeg on Tuesday. Out of those 19 games, the Canucks would have needed to go something like 13-6-0 to catch the Habs — which probably wouldn't have been in the cards even if their last 19 games had unfolded according to the original schedule.
A turnaround like that isn't impossible, though. On March 13, exactly halfway through their season, the Nashville Predators were five games below .500 at 11-16-1. They went 20-7-1 the rest of the way to finish with 64 points and edge out last year's Stanley Cup Finalists from Dallas for the final playoff spot in the Central Division.
And I'd say the Stars had an even rougher year that the Canucks. Ben Bishop missed the whole season, and Tyler Seguin returned for just the last three games — reminding us all that "he'll be ready for playoffs" doesn't always work out as intended. The Stars' training-camp Covid outbreak had them behind the eight-ball, schedule-wise, right from Day 1. Then, there was the weather issue
in mid-February that saw the power grid shut down for the better part of the week — not only forcing more game postponements, but also forcing players to bunk up together at the homes that did still have power.
The Stars impressed me enormously with their resilience during last summer's playoff bubble. This year's challenges were too much for even them to overcome.
One challenge that the Canucks have overcome this year is finding a way to win in Winnipeg. Without their fans in the stands, the Jets haven't been the same indomitable force at home this season. In fact, at 11-13-2, with two home games left to play, they're the only team in the North Division with a losing record on home ice as of Tuesday morning.
For the Canucks, it's also helpful that they're not making their visits to Winnipeg at the end of long eastern road trips this year. Monday's win gives them a 3-1-0 record at Bell MTS Place this season. And Thatcher Demko has all three wins, with just two goals allowed, for a .978 save percentage and 0.67 goals-against average.
With even the faint playoff hope still alive on Monday, I figured Travis Green would lean toward giving Demko his fourth-straight start, especially in a rink where he has played so well. But with six games still left on the schedule over just nine nights, I expect Braden Holtby will get the start on Tuesday, and that we'll also see him in the other two back-to-back sets that still remain.
Nils Hoglander is also proving to be a Jets killer. With two more goals on Monday night, five of his 12 on the season have now come against Winnipeg — more than any other team.
Though Hoglander was on the Covid protocol list, he told the media that he didn't really have symptoms — and I think his on-ice performance bears this out. His five goals in 13 games since the pause now lead all Canucks, and his 10 points tie him for top spot with J.T. Miller. That shooting percentage of 17.9 ain't half bad, either.
Now with 26 points in 50 games, Hoglander sits seventh in the rookie scoring race. With most other players finished their schedules, or close, he can still move up; it's not unreasonable to think that he could catch New Jersey's Yegor Sharangovich, in fourth place with 30 points.
Ballots for awards voting are being mailed out this week, so it's highly unlikely that Hoglander will get much attention for the Calder Trophy. I expect the finalists will be Kirill Kaprizov in Minnesota (51 points!), Jason Robertson in Dallas (45 points) and goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic in Carolina (15-5-3, .932 save percentage, 1.90 goals-against average).
But Hoglander has still made a very impressive debut for Vancouver — slotting into the top six immediately, earning power-play time, and averaging 15:29 of ice time while never getting healthy scratched. That's a big compliment to any rookie when it comes from Travis Green.
Just ask Kole Lind, who got his first press-box seat on Monday. In six games, Lind failed to record a point, and saw his ice time dwindle from 17:12 in Game 1 down to just 10:15 in Game 6 against the Oilers on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, Jonah Gadjovich waits for his opportunity.
The power forward skated with the club in Winnipeg on Monday and Tuesday after going through his week-long quarantine. His status is likely a combination of rustiness after being cooped up in a hotel room and Green's pattern of keeping his lineup intact after a win.
As for Green himself, there has started to be some talk about whether or not he will be back in Vancouver next season. John Tortorella and Rick Tocchet are now free agents after parting ways with the Blue Jackets and Coyotes, respectively, and everybody from Patrick Roy to Bob Hartley to Kirk Muller to Bruce Boudreau is making the media rounds to announce their desire to get back into the NHL coaching game. Gerard Gallant is using the men's World Championship as an audition opportunity, and Providence College coach Nate Leamon will be an assistant for Team USA at Worlds. After his World Juniors win for the U.S. in January, he's a first-timer who could also move into an NHL gig.
We've heard talk all season that if the Canucks don't buck up, Green could be courted for another opportunity. Though we heard early in the season that teams would be reluctant to make big changes in such a strange year, it seems like there will be plenty of coaching openings — but far more candidates than available chairs.
Asked about his contract on Tuesday morning, Green continues to say the right things.