This was not supposed to be the postseason script for the NHL’s best regular-season team: on the brink of elimination, in the first round, in possibly four games straight.
But that’s precisely where the Presidents’ Trophy winner Vancouver Canucks find themselves in their best-of-seven series against the Los Angeles Kings. Their season could be kaput on Wednesday.
To suggest such an outcome would prompt handwringing among the team’s fanatical supporters would be a laughable understatement. There will be shrinks in these parts dealing with the fallout from such a result for months to come.
It is not just a hockey team teetering on the brink – but a whole city and province.
Not that there aren’t fans in Canada enjoying every bit of this. Schadenfreude has become an all-too-familiar sentiment this time of year in playoff-deprived hockey markets such as Toronto and Edmonton. Of course, the Canucks’ reputation for being a team of whiners, divers but mostly high achievers doesn’t help. (St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock has said all the Canucks need to do to become more loved is lose more often).
Yet there are many prepared to cheer on any Canadian team in the NHL playoffs, regardless of which city it represents. But who would have thought that the last hope for the Cup returning to Canada this year (after an 18-season drought) might rest on the shoulders of the Ottawa Senators?
Not that the Canucks are out of it yet. They’re not. But they have a fundamental problem; they can’t score. This dilemma is exacerbated by the fact they don’t have their top sniper, Daniel Sedin, who is out with a concussion. Sedin has been cleared to practise with the team Tuesday, although it is not yet known if he will play in Game 4.
Now, if this was, say, Phoenix or Florida, this might all be written off as fate, and life for the fans there would simply carry on.
But this is Canada, and in this case, Vancouver, a city that has never won the Cup while getting oh, so close, a couple of times.
While the Canucks never had a chance in 1982 when they were swept four straight in the Cup final by the New York Islanders, they nearly pulled it off 12 years later against the New York Rangers. That ended in Game 7 heartbreak and led to the city’s first Stanley Cup riot.
Last year, of course, the Canucks ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy and were prohibitive favourites to win hockey’s Holy Grail. As everyone knows, the team lost in the finals to the Boston Bruins, which led to the city’s second Stanley Cup riot.
All of this is to explain, partly at least, the complicated layers of turmoil and emotion upon which support for this team is built. On top of that, for the past 10 years or so, the Canucks have been one of the best teams in hockey, after years of being a league doormat and laughingstock. There is a deep and abiding sense that the team is due. Really due.
This year, the Canucks made changes to address the perceived shortcomings in last season’s Cup-losing roster. The team was supposed to be more playoff ready, more battle tested. Even though a letdown from last season’s record-breaking regular-season pace was to be expected, the Canucks still won the Presidents’ Trophy – for the second year in a row.
Five teams with the best record during the regular season have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Only six teams who captured the Presidents’ Trophy since it was first presented in 1985-86 have won the Stanley Cup the same year.
Detroit was league-best six times during the regular season and ended up winning the Cup only twice in those years. In other words, the Presidents’ Trophy guarantees you nothing.
Still, organizations have windows of opportunity, those years when your best players are at their peak and your chances of winning the Cup are at their height. That window for the Canucks is now. They have some of the best players in the league, including twins who may already have begun the descent from the zenith of their powers.
The team’s window got a little narrower after last year’s Game 7 loss to Boston. Should it lose its first-round matchup against Los Angeles, that window will close even more.
And no doubt prompt many to wonder if the day the Cup comes to Vancouver is ever fated to be.