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Who’s Afraid Of The Vancouver Canucks?

The Colorado Avalanche celebrate their overtime winner
Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

Quinn Hughes should have gone to the box! Tagged with an interference penalty midway through his Canucks' game against the Avalanche on Wednesday night, he tried to argue with referee Kyle Rehman while the zebra's microphone was on. Rehman gave him stern instructions that echoed through the arena and living rooms across the Pacific: "Go to the box, please. Now."

This penalty didn't lead directly to any scoring, but only bad things happened to Vancouver from this moment on. After falling into a couple of early goals at the start of the game, then adding another in the second to go up 3-0, the home team eventually surrendered one in the dying seconds of this period, one during a five-on-three, and then a chaotic equalizer that needed review. The soaring Avalanche finished them off in overtime when a shot took a pair of deflections, one of them off Val Nichushkin's visor, and evaded Casey DeSmith guarding the goal line.

Expected goals will tell you that the Canucks got absolutely trounced here—unable to create any real chances of note, especially as the Avs dogged them in the third. I don't know if that's quite the whole story of the game—a five-on-three is unavoidable bad news, a team with an early advantage is prone to psychologically downshift, and the 'Nucks were this close to a 3-0 lead in the second intermission. (They could have had a 4-0 lead even: They just missed this fantastic opportunity at the final minute when Alexandar Georgiev misplayed a puck way out in front of his net.) But the collapse here does play into the narrative that's clung to this team all year. Despite their first-place credentials, the Canucks are practically unchanged on paper from the team that missed the playoffs for a third straight time last season—just subtract Bo Horvat and add Filip Hronek. But because opposing goalies are letting in a higher percentage of their shots than any other team, and because Thatcher Demko has reached new heights as a net protector, we must notice them for the time being. The guillotine of regression hangs over their necks.

In the middle of last month, including that ridiculous 10-7 loss to the Wild, it looked as though Canucks Magic might become Canucks Tragic. But credit to them, they course-corrected heading into this Colorado game, winning four straight including a 5-0 stomping of Winnipeg. They've even showed genuine improvement in their ability to outchance their opponents, with the Hronek/Hughes defensive pairing in particular serving as something they can unconditionally trust to control possession. Nevertheless, Demko's injury in the Jets win, which has left him "week-to-week," presents a new challenge: Can the Canucks keep up the whole "our goalie will be better than your goalie" gimmick when they're forced to ride their backup? DeSmith's loss on Wednesday is less than ideal, and he hasn't played like a worthy starter since stealing some early-season games, but we'll see.

If there's anything really troubling these Canucks, it's the fact that they're the Canucks. They've existed since the breakup of The Beatles and yet never hoisted a Cup, preferring instead to meander through mediocrity and then snap hearts in two during a couple of life-changing Game 7s. They've given their fans nothing but the short-lived whimsy of "Bruce, there it is" for the last three seasons, until this one, and they haven't won a playoff series with live crowds in attendance since 2011. It's just hard to believe in the Canucks. Why? Because they're the Canucks. They are always, constantly, subservient to a better team. Blowing it against an established threat like Colorado only gives their haters more to work with. Most every first-place NHL team, by this point in the season, proves itself worthy of the hype. But as Vancouver stares down the last month before what will be an anxiety-packed playoffs, it feels impossible for anyone to get too comfortable.

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