The mood on Friday morning was deflated.
The Vancouver Canucks, scratching to hold on to the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, had embarrassed themselves the night before against the San Jose Sharks. Then, during a short practice last Friday, the Canucks loafed at one point – sparking rookie coach Willie Desjardins to chew out the squad. Two players, Shawn Matthias and Yannick Weber, thereafter got into brief contretemps during one last drill.
There was no bad blood, Weber said afterwards. It was a general frustration. "We just got pumped 5-1 at home. Nobody's really happy around here." Captain Henrik Sedin, his voice still hoarse from a recent stick to the throat, was less colourful but clearly remembered how, one year ago, the season fell apart. These Canucks are not good enough to afford any missteps. "We've got to understand where we are."
The players on Friday then congregated for a team meeting. The hot Pittsburgh Penguins were coming Saturday. The Canucks knew the stakes, knew they had to bring it.
The mood on Saturday night was elated. Facing the Pens at Rogers Arena, the visitors playing their third game in four nights, the Canucks put on a display of urgency. The final tally was a decisive 5-0 for the home team, propelled by some luck when a Pittsburgh goal was disallowed in the second period.
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby encapsulated what went backwards for his team and what went right for Vancouver.
"You could tell, the first 10 minutes, they were desperate," said Crosby after the game. "They're hungry, they're in a big playoff race, and they're a desperate team. We didn't match that."
The Canucks, for a night, understood where they are, teetering and tottering on the edge of making the postseason and missing it. This past week's schedule had been a gift. Pittsburgh was the third straight time Vancouver hosted an opponent who had played in Calgary the night before. Vancouver delivered against Winnipeg on Tuesday but got pumped by San Jose and a loss to Pittsburgh would have been a doubly hard blow. Instead, the Canucks found their best selves, and won handily.
This team, while certainly not great, has shown flashes. On Saturday, they did things they haven't of late: scored first, and scored on the power play, the two events happening together as the Canucks took advantage of a seemingly deflated Penguins team. Even Zack Kassian scored a goal, effectively an empty-netter on a botched play by Pens backup goalie Thomas Greiss, for which the newly goateed Kassian received a buoyant ovation from the home crowd.
"We wanted to have a great game," said teenage rookie Bo Horvat, who went head-to-head with Crosby on some shifts. "We wanted to come out with lots of energy, lots of positivity."
The elusive trick this season, one in which the Canucks have seen considerable highs – standing first in the NHL in late November – is conjuring it every night. Horvat has, of late: he scored Saturday's second goal and has five points in the past eight games.
Against the Sharks, the Canucks looked asleep, hardly even present. "We have to be consistent every game," Horvat said on Saturday. "Have that emotion, and drive. That kind of energy for every game. We showed it tonight."
It will become ever-more essential. The schedule gets tougher. The Canucks position – seventh after the win against the Penguins – is promising yet precarious. They could shoot up to fifth if they could dislodge San Jose but there's hot Minnesota in ninth, the Wild who beat up the Canucks a week ago and host the team again on Monday. In 10th looms the riddle of the defending Stanley Cup champs, the Los Angeles Kings. Their goaltending has been awful in recent months but surely it will improve and the team will be a force in the final 30 games.
"We're in an exciting playoff race," said Sedin on Friday. "We're right there with a lot of other teams but we need wins."