The final four-game road trip of the season for the Vancouver Canucks was supposed to be an opportunity to collect a few easy points and create a cushion in the tight Western Conference playoff race. What it turned into was a disaster, and now there is a real possibility that they could fall completely out of playoff contention altogether. Jacob Markstrom’s injury has forced backup goaltender Thatcher Demko into the starting role, and he’s looked shaky so far in his attempt to fill his skates.
It’s unfair to expect the same level of play that Markstrom displayed throughout the season, but Demko still needs to be a solid goaltender for the Canucks if they hope to make the playoffs. Current backup, Louis Domingue hasn’t faired any better, as he was a part of the third-period collapse in the finale against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
After only allowing one goal in the first two periods, Domingue surrendered four third period goals en route to a 5-3 defeat. After that performance, it’s unclear if he will get another start anytime soon, which would put even more pressure on Demko to perform.
Now, the Canucks must regroup, put it in the rearview mirror and focus on the next homestand. They play ten of their remaining 17 games within the friendly confines of Rogers Arena where they own an impressive 20-7-4 record, so the odds of a turnaround are very good. Demko is lights out at home as well with an equally impressive record of 7-1-1 in 2019-20.
On paper, it looks like everything will be okay. Unfortunately, games are not played there, so it will be up to the team to back it up with the same effort they have shown all season long on home ice.
So, with all that said, let’s take a closer look at the first of three crucial homestands remaining on the Canucks’ regular-season schedule.
Can the Canucks Tame the Coyotes?
The Arizona Coyotes roll into Rogers Arena coming off a homestand of their own where they recorded blowout wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres, 7-3 and 5-2 respectively. They are currently locked in a three-way tie for the second wild-card spot with the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets all the while being only two points back of the Canucks.
The Canucks do have two games in hand on the Coyotes, so that makes this game even more critical. If they can win in regulation, that puts them four points clear with the potential of gaining four more points if they can win their remaining games in hand. If they lose, the Canucks risk moving into a tie with the Coyotes, and potentially into the lion’s den of the second wild-card spot.
The Canucks last met the Coyotes back in January where they came away with a 3-1 victory. Jake Virtanen and Bo Horvat had the goals, while Tanner Pearson added an empty-netter. Markstrom was his usual brilliant self, stopping 34 shots in the victory. Demko will get this start after sitting out the last game, so he will need to deliver a similar performance in order to come away with the win.
This game could set the tone for the rest of the season series, as the Canucks play the Coyotes two more times, both at Gila River Arena where they are 17-12-4. These final games against the Desert Dogs could be the difference between a playoff spot and another trip to the links, so they better be ready.
Makar vs. Hughes – Part Two
This one promises to be a dandy as two of the most exciting young defencemen in the National Hockey League go head-to-head yet again. Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes have been neck and neck all season long in the race for the Calder Trophy. The former jumped out to a huge lead in points at the beginning of the season, but the latter has since caught up and now holds a four-point advantage. Both have been electric in their rookie seasons, dazzling everyone with their offensive skills, hockey IQ and maturity beyond their years.
This matchup also features Nathan MacKinnon, Elias Pettersson and one of the most productive offseason acquisitions in the NHL in JT Miller. If you can’t get up for this one, you shouldn’t call yourself a hockey fan. You just have to look back to a game in November of last season to see what these two teams can deliver in entertainment value. In short, don’t miss this one, folks.
The Canucks will have their work cut out for them though, as the Avalanche have been one of the best teams in the NHL all season. As of this writing, they are on a seven-game winning streak and are only one point back of the St. Louis Blues for the top spot in the Western Conference. They also own one of the NHL’s best road records at 23-9-2. MacKinnon has also been a force again this season with 33 goals and 86 points to his credit, so he will be difficult to contain.
The Avalanche also have plenty of scoring depth, boasting eight players with ten or more goals. Their goaltending has also been extremely solid with Philip Grubauer and the surprising Pavel Francouz manning the crease. Francouz actually has played the lion share of the games lately and owns a very impressive record of 19-5-3, along with a stingy 2.24 goals-against-average (GAA) and .929 save percentage (SV%). Basically, the Canucks will have to be at their very best to walk away from this with a victory.
Redemption Against the Blue Jackets
The Canucks won’t have to wait long for a chance at redemption against the Blue Jackets. Exactly a week after their third-period collapse, they will look to avenge the loss that appeared to be a win with seven minutes remaining in the final frame. A lack of discipline by veterans Brandon Sutter and Antoine Roussel which led to power play goals by Zach Werenski and Emil Bemstrom ultimately sunk the team.
The Canucks played a very solid game overall, that is until the last seven minutes. They will look for a better finish this time, which is something that has alluded them multiple times already this season. This sort of collapse isn’t new to the team, which is concerning. People can point to the fact that they are a young team, but it was the veterans, not the young players that put the team shorthanded in the final minutes of the game. The bottom line is, the veterans have to be better, especially at this time of the season. With that said, it was encouraging to hear that Sutter owned up to it after the game.
To play the way we did for 50 minutes, there is no way we lose that game…It wasn’t even close. And then we just made a couple of bad plays I want have back, a couple plays the guys want to have back, and that changes the game. … It’s just a gut wrenching way to lose.
The Blue Jackets are probably the weakest of the opponents on this homestand, but as we already witnessed on this last road trip, any team can beat anyone on any given night. The Canucks will have to be wary of them, and I’m sure they will be, especially after the debacle in Columbus last Sunday.
Rematch Against the Islanders
The Islanders make their annual visit to Rogers Arena in the final game of the homestand. Hopefully, the Canucks already have a few wins under their belt by the time this game is played. If not, the pressure will definitely be on to come away with a victory as they get ready to embark on a tough two-game road trip against the Coyotes and Avalanche, two teams that they have already faced on this homestand.
The Islanders currently sit in the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference tied with the Blue Jackets in points. They continue to be one of the stingiest teams in the league with the fourth-best goals against, although they have been a little looser lately allowing 11 goals in their last three games. As of this writing, they are also on a three-game losing streak. Since they acquired Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Andy Greene at the trade deadline, they have not won a game.
Despite their recent struggles, the Islanders are a dangerous team, especially with how they can stifle you defensively. Although, the Canucks didn’t seem to have any trouble in their last meeting, as they pumped four goals past them including two by rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes. They will be looking for a similar result in this one, minus the mediocre third period where they were outshot 17-5 and allowed the tying goal in the final minute.
Canucks Need Some Home Cooking
After the debacle that was the last road trip where the Canucks came away with only two of a possible eight points, they are probably looking forward to some home cooking. They have lost only seven games in regulation on home ice and their last game was the 9-3 shellacking of the Boston Bruins. If they can somehow bring that sort of game to this homestand, everything will be coming up roses in Canuck Nation.
The fact that the Canucks play most of their remaining games at home could end up being their saving grace. If they are able to win most of them, a playoff berth will certainly be in their grasp. If not, it will be another season of what-ifs and watching the draft lottery once again.
Matthew Zator is the assistant managing editor at THW and a writer who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.
Matthew also co-hosts The Hockey Writers Prospect Corner on YouTube.