VANCOUVER (Sportsnet) — Like captain Bo Horvat’s baby, the Vancouver Canucks have arrived, exciting and beautiful and full of promise, sooner than anyone expected.
The National Hockey League team, which went nine years without a playoff series win but has suddenly won two in the span of three weeks, eliminated the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues with a 6-2 win Friday that sent the Canucks into the final eight for the first time since 2011.
Nearly half of their lineup had not experienced an NHL playoff game until this month, and with emerging superstars Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson still years from their peak, the Canucks were not expected to gather much more than experience this summer.
Their window to win was not supposed to be open already. But here they are, Canada’s last-standing team, getting ready to open the Western Conference semi-finals against the Vegas Golden Knights.
“This team, I’ve said it from the beginning, is a special and dangerous team,” veteran Jay Beagle said after opening scoring on Friday. “We have a lot of heart and a lot of will in the locker room.
“The character that we have in the room, we have a great group of guys that have a lot of fun together. And when you have that and mix some skill in there, you make for a great team. That will to win, that hunger to win, I saw it from Day 1 when we came in. We’re kind of seeing what we all in the room knew already. But we’re seeing it now in the playoffs.”
So is everyone else.
Miss any of the game? Listen back to some of the best calls from @BatchHockey and @CoreyHirsch as the #Canucks eliminated the #STLBlues with a 6-2 win in Game 6. #HomeOfTheCanucks pic.twitter.com/58c3iHVvuM
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) August 22, 2020
The mighty Blues appeared to seize the series when they surged back from a 0-2 deficit after ditching struggling starting goalie Jordan Binnington in favour of backup Jake Allen. But the Canucks merely raised their level again, and when St. Louis coach Craig Berube unwisely chose to put his team back in Binnington’s shaky hands for Game 6, Vancouver won the series 4-2.
Interestingly, each of the three eras of superior hockey for the Canucks franchise in the last three decades has included a playoff win against the Blues. This sure looks like the start of another golden era, perhaps the brightest of all.
“It means a lot for our group and for our organization as well,” Canuck Jacob Markstrom, who turned the goaltending battle into a mismatch, said after waiting 10 years in pro hockey to get to this stage. “We’ve got a great group of guys here, on and off the ice. Everybody likes each other, and on the ice everybody is battling and working their behind off. It’s just so much fun to play hockey right now. When you’re winning a series like this, it’s pure joy.
“We’ve still got a long ways to go before anybody is satisfied. But it sure is a good feeling right now and it’s a stepping stone. And we need to take a couple of more steps.”
Playing in the bubble, in unnatural isolation from family, is difficult mentally. But with so many young players desperate for playoff hockey, and some key veterans hungry for success, the Canucks are attacking this tournament with exuberance.
“It’s pretty easy; we’re playing for the Stanley Cup,” defenceman Troy Stecher, who grew up in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, explained. “That’s what fuels you to keep going throughout the games. If you remember the end goal in sight, it’s pretty easy to get up. We definitely feel the support. I know Scott Road is going to bumping tonight. I’m excited for the fans. They deserve to have some fun.”
Scott Road, in Surrey, has become a post-victory parade route for fans who saw more NHL losses than any fan base outside Buffalo over the last four years.
— CityNews Vancouver (@CityNewsVAN) August 22, 2020
Many celebrants probably arrived early on Friday when the Canucks torched Binnington with three goals on five shots early in the second period to build a 4-0 lead and chase the Blues’ fallen star in favour of Allen.
Hoping for a little of last year’s Stanley Cup magic, Berube ignored evidence from the last three weeks — Binnington had a save percentage of .862, Allen .939 — and went back to his starter after Allen lost 4-3 on Wednesday in Game 5.
The magic, however, was obviously gone from Binnington. Most of it seems to be with the Canucks now.
Antoine Roussel rattled a quick shot through Binnington to make it 2-0 at 2:09 of the second period after Roussel and Brandon Sutter forced Vince Dunn into a turnover inside the St. Louis blue line. The only shot that beat Binnington cleanly was Troy Stecher’s one-timer at 6:49, set up by some extraordinary passing that included Sutter, Pettersson and Hughes.
Binnington’s season, and essentially the Blues’ season, ended 77 seconds later when Brock Boeser, goal-less in the series, blasted a power-play slapper between the goalie’s arm and torso at 8:06.
Even the Calgary Flames couldn’t screw up a 4-0 lead. Actually, maybe they could. But the Canucks have learned a lot about five-on-five play and stout defending during their games against the Blues and, in the qualifying round, the Minnesota Wild. They also had Markstrom in net.
The Canucks won wire-to-wire after opening scoring just 3:45 into the first period when Blue Jacob de la Rose stood on the puck and fell in his own zone, leaving it for Beagle to collect, skate to the slot and fire in off Binnington.
Jaden Schwartz had a couple of late goals for the Blues, while speedy checker Tyler Motte scored twice in the third period for Vancouver, giving him four goals in two games — matching his total from the regular season.
The people least surprised by what the Canucks have accomplished were in their dressing room celebrating late Friday.
“We got better and better as the season went on,” Roussel said, “and we came back with just one focus: play hard and go as far as we can.”
They’re already farther than anyone expected.