This season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the fresh-faced Vancouver Canucks.
But heading into this weekend’s all-star break, the team is firmly entrenched in a battle for the playoffs in the tightly bunched Western Conference.
“Every game is huge right now,” said Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom as his team geared up for Wednesday’s contest against the visiting Carolina Hurricanes.
“(The playoff race is) so tight and this is when most teams make an impression, try to run away with it. The spots are becoming less and less and I feel like every day there’s another team that’s getting involved in the race. So every point in every game right now is super important.”
With 52 points over 50 games, Vancouver (23-21-6) sat just outside of a playoff position heading into Tuesday’s action. They were tied for points with the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche — who held the two wild-card berths — but had played one more game.
Competition is fierce in the Western Conference, where six points separate those currently in playoff position from the 13th-place St. Louis Blues.
Western Conference Standings Nowhere Near Solid
Streaky play has marbled the seasons of many clubs, including the Anaheim Ducks, who snapped a 12-game losing skid last week. Despite the slump, the Ducks are a single point behind the Canucks.
Bo Horvat knows exactly where Vancouver sits in the standings.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t paying attention to it,” said the 23-year-old centre. “We want to make the playoffs, we want to be in the race and play meaningful games towards the end of the season.”
The Canucks haven’t made it to the post-season since 2015, when they lost in the first round to the Calgary Flames. Last season, they finished second-last in the west with 31-40-11 record.
Things feel a little different this year, Horvat said.
“I don’t think we were in this position last year going into the all-star break,” he said. “We’re in a playoff hunt and for us to play meaningful games right now and for us to be in it is exciting. And I think all the guys know that.”
Making a run at the post-season has been the goal all year, said Ben Hutton.
“We knew we were a good team. We knew we were capable of doing great things,” said the defenceman. “At the start of the season we said ‘Let’s make playoffs.’ And we’re right in the hunt now. It’s a good spot to be.”
Postseason Belief Building as Canucks Season Goes
The group has every reason to believe in their ability to keep playing late into April, said coach Travis Green.
“They’ve put themselves in a spot to have the belief, where in November it was hard,” he said. “We slipped a little bit. And as players, that’s hard.”
The squad won just three of 14 at one point, taking nine points across a four-week stretch in November. A playoff race seemed unlikely at the time.
Vancouver has also been marred by injuries this year, including a concussion that kept left-winger Sven Baertschi out of the lineup for 30 games and a knee injury to star rookie Elias Pettersson.
Though he has missed 11 games, the 20-year-old centre still leads the team in scoring with 44 points.
Pettersson returned to the lineup against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday, and the Canucks continued a streak that has seen the team take points from each of their last five games.
“We’ve found ways to win hockey games when we haven’t played our best,” said Green. “We haven’t the game we want but we’ve had the results we want.”
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press