The fever-dream playoff race in the Western Conference tips and tilts, and it is the defending Stanley Cup champions that remain backed against the wall as three Canadian teams, led by the Vancouver Canucks, push towards to the postseason.
In Vancouver Monday night, in the most meaningful game at Rogers Arena in two years, the Los Angeles Kings exerted their will early, and burst to a 1-0 lead. But the resilient Canucks, backstopped by goaltender Eddie Lack, held on, tying the game in the third period on a magical goal from the Sedins and then seizing the 2-1 victory in a shootout.
The victory makes it 99.9 per cent certain Vancouver will reach the postseason, a solid reversal of the implosion of one year ago. Even if the Canucks lose their last two games, they are still almost certainly in, and the two are against the worst in the West, Arizona on Thursday at home, and Edmonton to end the regular season at home Saturday.
The Kings once more, incredibly, were waylaid by their inability to win in overtime or shootouts. The team is 1-7 in overtimes and against the Canucks instead lost, again, in the shootout, where L.A.'s record slides to 2-8. The extra-time disaster of 2014-15 could be the singular reason the winner of two of the past three Stanley Cups is done come Sunday.
L.A.'s two-month drive for the playoffs stalled significantly with the shootout loss, as rival Winnipeg won against Minnesota, lifting the Jets into seventh in the West. The Calgary Flames held on to eighth, tied with the Kings with 93 points but with more wins in regulation and overtime.
"It's the way the league is," said Kings coach Darryl Sutter after the game of parity and the dramatic six days ahead. "It's not a bad thing, it's a good thing."
L.A. trudges to Edmonton for a Tuesday night contest, a third game in four nights – a "must-must win," said defenceman Drew Doughty. Then comes Calgary on Thursday, on which the season could tip and tilt, before the season ends back in L.A. against San Jose, which was officially eliminated from the playoffs on Monday, the first time the Sharks have missed in 12 years.
"It's tough, 1-0, third period, we want to lock that down," said L.A.'s Jarret Stoll. "We've got three games to take care of our own business."
Lack was, again, essential for Vancouver, as he has been most games since starter Ryan Miller went down in late February with a knee injury. In his second NHL season, Lack has done more than prove himself. Vancouver fans, however, feared the worst early on, with the Kings pressing, scoring, and the Canucks showing nothing. "I'm just not in the mood to watch the Kings blow out the Canucks yet again," said one Canucks fan on Twitter.
The fear wasn't misplaced. The Kings had defeated the Canucks three out of four games this year, by a score of 13-7, with dominant possession – close to 60 per cent of even-strength shot attempts. The Kings are the best possession team in hockey – and the Canucks have struggled to control the puck through the year, and over the past several months.
But the Canucks on Monday rallied, eclipsing the Kings in shot attempts late in the first and holding on through the night, one game after the Kings completely dominated – humiliated, really – the Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks, captain Henrik Sedin said, had been buoyed by their win in L.A. two weeks ago – and it showed, led by the play of the Sedins.
The tying goal was a beauty: Henrik Sedin, in the middle of the third period, after a power play, the Kings tired, carried the puck behind the L.A. net, drawing goalie Jonathan Quick across the crease. In the same blink, Sedin sent a backhand pass back from where he had skated, straight to his brother Daniel, who rifled a one-timer to the top far corner, over Quick's left shoulder.
"I had a feeling," said Daniel, of whether a pass was coming.
It evoked the best of the Sedins. For a moment, a blink, it felt like 2011. It was Henrik's 700th assist in the NHL, the 52nd player to reach the mark. The soldout crowd of 18,870 gave the 34-year-old a standing ovation. In a year the Sedins face some criticism among Vancouver fans, somehow not being worth their $7-million salaries or good enough for their first-line position, the twins continue to prove doubters wrong. The goal lifted Daniel to 18 for the season, and his 72 points ranks ninth among all scorers. Henrik has 69 points.
"It doesn't get any closer," said Daniel of the game and the playoff tenor in the building. "The last month was playoff hockey."
As the Canucks clinched the shootout – Vancouver is one of the league's best, after eschewing a focus on the shootout under John Tortorella last year – Alex Burrows celebrated like it was a playoff-series win. With great enthusiasm, Burrows high-fived and embraced teammates on the ice, jubilant.
"It was a Game 7 for us," said Burrows. "We're playing for our playoff lives."
And now Vancouver not only looks at the playoffs, but home-ice advantage. Asked whether the Canucks can rouse emotion against the weak Coyotes and awful Oilers, Burrows was certain.
"There's no reason why we won't come up big."