As he often is after games, head coach Travis Green was analytical and introspective following the Vancouver Canucks 3-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights Friday in Game 7 of their Stanley Cup Western Conference second-round series.
Defenceman Chris Tanev, one of two players remaining from Vancouver’s Game 7 loss to Boston in the 2011 Stanley Cup final, was more succinct.
“It sucks,” said Tanev.
Vancouver’s unexpected success in this year’s unprecedented bubble playoffs showed the Canucks’ potential. It also exposed weaknesses and improvements that are needed whenever the new the new season begins.
WATCH | Golden Knights eliminate Canucks
Management also faces decisions on a list of free agents, including Tanev, goaltender Jacob Markstrom and forward Tyler Toffoli, and restricted free agents like forward Jake Virtanen and defenceman Troy Stecher.
“You are always looking to improve your group,” said Green. “As an organization we are going to keep pushing until we get to that level where we want to win a Stanley Cup. That’s our goal.”
Canucks gain much-needed playoff experienced
The Canucks had 10 players appearing in their first playoffs. They lost the first game of the best-of-five play-in series to Minnesota then won the next three. The underdog Canucks then needed six games to defeat the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues and battled back from a 3-1 deficit to force a deciding game against Vegas.
Not bad for a team that was on the playoff bubble, sitting seventh in the West with a 36-27-6 record when the NHL paused its season March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you come into a situation like this, you have 10 guys that haven’t played playoff hockey before, internally in your mind there are some question marks,” said the usually stoic Green, who at times seemed on the verge of tears after the loss. “I have never once not believed in our group and their ability to compete and want to win.
“I thought our team grew as the playoffs went on. I thought after the first loss against Minnesota, our confidence grew and grew to the point that even when we were down 3-1 in this series we still felt they could come back and win.”
In centre Elias Pettersson, last year’s top rookie, and defenceman Quinn Hughes, a Calder Trophy nominee this year, the Canucks have two of the NHL’s top young talents.
Smooth and swift during the regular season, Pettersson showed he could shine in the more physical playoffs. He scored seven goals, two of them game winners, and collected 18 points. Two of Vancouver’s goals in Game 6 came off Pettersson screens and he wasn’t afraid to throw his body in front of shots.
Hughes led all playoff rookies with 14 assists and 16 points. His speed and passing makes him an offensive weapon but he’s also strong defensively.
Goalie controversy brewing
Markstrom was the Canuck MVP of the regular season and playoffs prior to missing the last three games with an injury. Rookie Thatcher Demko stepped in and made 123 saves and recorded a shutout to push Vegas to the brink.
“I just wanted to keep doing my job,” said Demko.
Captain Bo Horvat led the playoffs with 10 goals and was dominate in the faceoff circle, winning 59 per cent of his draws. Veteran J.T. Miller, obtained in a trade last spring, showed leadership while adding six goals and 18 points.
The Canucks are still a work in progress. As they showed during the regular season, Vancouver needs outstanding goaltending most nights to win a game.
Signing Markstrom will be a priority for general manager Jim Benning. Two injuries this season, and the emergence of Demko, might complicate the negotiations.
Benning also knows down the road he will need salary cap room for Pettersson and Hughes.
The series against Vegas showed how the Canucks struggle against a fast, physical team. Vancouver gave up 40 or more shots three times and were outshot 127-54 in the last three games.
Virtanen was the only bottom six forward to score against the Knights. The Canuck power-play, ranked fourth in the league during the regular season, was 3-for-27. During a five-minute man-advantage in the final game Vancouver managed just one shot.
When the season started few predicted Vancouver would make the playoffs. The year has been a learning curve but Horvat gave the team a passing grade.
“Guys stepped up at different times all the way through our lineup,” he said. “With a young group we showed a lot of guts.
“I’m proud of our guys and we are going to learn from it. We cannot wait to get back and play next year.”