EDMONTON – It doesn’t feel like summer here anymore.
On Sunday morning, long before the Vancouver Canucks lost 5-3 to the Vegas Golden Knights to imperil what has been a fairly magical playoff run, it was nine degrees downtown and felt cooler than that with wind howling out of the west from the Rockies far beyond the horizon.
The first fallen leaves were kicked up into little cyclones and the courtyard in the players’ hotel bubble – “the yard” with a couple of basketball hoops and a Tim Horton’s truck that is the highlight of their day, was deserted and forlorn. Looking at the barren concrete, you half-expected tumbleweed to roll through.
The Canucks have been here so long that the seasons have changed. The sun set at 9:39 p.m. when they arrived on July 26, wide-eyed and eager for the summer Stanley Cup tournament. On Monday it set at 8:24 p.m.
In length, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are barely past the halfway point, but it sure feels like the end of something. For the Canucks, it will be the end of their season unless they beat the Golden Knights on Tuesday to extend the second-round series beyond five games.
The Canucks have been here five weeks and won eight playoff games — of the 19 required of them to lift the Stanley Cup. Much has happened.
All those players who had never experienced an NHL playoff game have logged 14 of them, increasing in intensity, pressure and pain as the games piled up. The Canucks lost players to injury, welcomed a couple of them back, overcame a false start against the Minnesota Wild, a huge momentum swing against the St. Louis Blues, and have won two more playoff rounds than the last eight years’ worth of Vancouver teams.
They could have hardly experienced more had they spent the last month backpacking around Europe.
Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes have shown they’re going to be superstars. Bo Horvat is a great captain, Jacob Markstrom a great goalie. J.T. Miller is a warrior and there’s still game in many of the Canucks’ veterans, an underrated component on a team rebuilt around youth.
They’ve learned a lot. They’re not wide-eyed anymore. But maybe the toughest lesson of summer school is this: sometimes no matter how hard you try, how well you play, it may still not be enough.
Tuesday, in Game 5, they’ll experience an elimination game for the first time from the desperate end of the ice.
“Everyone has played in these types of games throughout their life,” said veteran defenceman Chris Tanev, who in 2011 was a rookie minor-league call-up on the last Canucks team that came this far in the playoffs. “Maybe not in the NHL for everyone. But guys have played at high levels their whole life and they’ve faced elimination before.
“Obviously, we’ve taken big steps forward from previous years. Last time we were in the playoffs was five years ago. So going from that to where we are now is a lot of growth. (But) we’re obviously not satisfied where we are right now, down 3-1 against a good team.”
“I think you’ve just got to go and play the game and love to be in this situation,” Horvat said during Monday’s video call with reporters. “Embrace it, embrace the moment. Get back to hard work and doing the little things right and everything else will take care of itself. The minute you start overthinking things and gripping your stick too tight, that’s kind of when it goes the opposite way. Leave it all out there; we’ve got nothing to save it for.”
Horvat has three more years on his contract. But Tuesday could be Tanev’s final game after a decade with the Canucks. He is an unrestricted free agent. So is Markstrom. These are the things they can’t afford to be thinking about.
The game-at-time mentality is so ingrained in players from a young age that they can all spout the cliché before they ever make it to the NHL. It’s actually impossible to play more than one game at a time, but there is a danger in worrying beyond the next one.
That uncertain future, however, becomes most distracting when facing elimination.
“They’re probably a little bit upset right now, and rightfully so,” coach Travis Green said when asked about his players’ mindset after falling behind 3-1 in the series by blowing a third-period lead to Vegas on Sunday. “When you want to win bad and you lose, it stings. It should sting. You’re playing for the Stanley Cup ultimately. We’re in the playoffs and (the pain of losing) doesn’t just go away.
“Could we have won that game last night? One hundred percent. That’s playoff hockey, though. We had a 3-2 lead, we were in a good spot. It didn’t go the way we want. We’ll talk to our group tonight and we’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”
The problem, of course, is so will be the Knights. Vegas has won with defence, and they’ve won with scoring and they’ve won with goaltending, where the guy who shut out Vancouver twice in three games (Robin Lehner) will be back in the Knights’ net. Whatever the Canucks have tried, the Knights have handled it. But Vancouver still hasn’t played its best.
Brock Boeser hasn’t scored in the series, neither has a Vancouver defenceman, and the Canucks haven’t had a point from a forward outside their top six. Markstrom wasn’t sharp in the third period on Sunday. Hughes, minus-seven in the series, relentlessly targeted physically and verbally by Vegas, hasn’t found the form that made him the best player against St. Louis. The penalty kill has struggled.
Even the Canucks’ best may not be enough to take down the Knights. But they’d sure like to know for sure.
“This talk about talking to your group about facing an elimination game. . . we’ve just got to win one game tomorrow,” Green said. “Last series we lost two against St. Louis (to make it 2-2). Everyone thought we were down and out and were going to be done. We were ready to go. I can guarantee our team is going to be ready to go tomorrow. We win tomorrow, we get to play another one.
“These guys have been in hockey a long time. They’ve all played important hockey games. I hope that we play a lot more important games this year.”
Like any game after Tuesday.