It’s Canuck Time
12:16 PM EST on February 7, 2024
A couple of Detroit Lions playoff wins can do funny things to a girl. They can upend the truths on which you've built your life. They can make you cry at something as simple as a pregame entrance. And they can instill an optimism that is contagious across sports, communicable to all franchises that struggle against the weight of history. Maybe losers are just teams that haven't won yet.
The Vancouver Canucks are one of the NHL's losers. Their 52 seasons of existence without ever winning a Cup is tied with their expansion brothers in Buffalo for the longest permanent drought. In those decades, the 'Nucks have thrown a couple of knives to the heart during what has otherwise been the drab confinement of missed postseasons and first-round exits: Game 7 in 1994, Game 7 in 2011. The past 12 years have proven some of the most depressing yet—the only time the Canucks won a playoff series in that stretch, there were no fans in the stands to cheer them on.
For reasons that can't quite be explained, this year feels different. The Canucks rank 27th in the league in shots per game, and yet they're first in goals. Their starting goalie, who had a save percentage of .901 last season, is up to .920. Night after night, the Canucks have beaten the competition in a way that a hockey knower will tell you can't be sustained or replicated, even as they sit comfortably in first place. "They're just a lucky team," one might say if they'd never encountered the Vancouver Canucks before now.
But the Canucks have continued to collect their points even while they've kept fans on their toes with blown leads, comebacks, and OT dramatics. On Tuesday, coming out of the all-star break to start a road trip in Carolina, they combined two great genres of game for a team that looks ready for a deep playoff run: New Acquisition Enjoys Awesome Start, and Tough Win In An Established Good Team's Building.
The man of the hour was Elias Lindholm, rescued from Calgary last week. The one-time 40-goal scorer was lost in the dying embers of the Flames, notching just nine with his old team, but for Vancouver he quickly found a spot he liked—directly in front of the goalie on the power play, being fed by Quinn Hughes. For his first goal, he got his stick on a liner from Hughes at the blue line and redirected it past Pyotr Kochetkov. His second was even tougher to pick up with the naked eye but functioned in almost the same way. Already, he's feeling the spirit of these Canucks.
"Just a lucky touch, honestly,” Lindholm said in the postgame. “Hopefully, I can have some more luck with those.”
The Hurricanes are unlike the Canucks both because they've made five straight playoffs and because of how they've had to scrap for points this year—win the shots battle and pray that they can get a few big saves. It's worked well enough so far, but this game was different—Canucks magic bends but does not break. The Canes in 5-on-5 just could not get the puck behind that dynamic top defense duo of Hughes and Filip Hronek. But the special teams units almost made up for the shortcoming. Killing a penalty in the first, a give-and-go out of the offensive corner by Teuvo Teräväinen and Jordan Martinook exploited a sleeping defense. And on the power play near the end of a lackluster second, Sebastian Aho aimed and fired with space at the top of the circle to laser the puck into the upper right corner for a 2-2 game.
There's still that small issue of goaltending, and it bit them in the third. The 24-year-old Pyotr Kochetkov has been the slightly less disastrous of the two main Carolina options this year, but he gifted the game-winner via J.T. Miller when he was completely duped by a simple dump into the zone. The puck bounced off the back of his skate as he moved behind his net and ricocheted right into the most dangerous area. The Canes pushed at the end, but they couldn't get it back.
The Canucks are now entering what should be a fulfilling two months. Unlike the more familiarly excellent teams—the Bruins, say—first place is not something they will take for granted on the road to bigger goals. These 34 wins have been their own reward, but I love what comes next: the trek to the regular-season finish line in which no single loss hurts too badly and every win is a thrill. Day in, day out, Vancouver fans can follow their boys with the guarantee that they won't be wasting their time. Barring a historic collapse, that is. But why even think about that as long as you have the choice not to?