In the National Hockey League, nothing fuels Western alienation like the release of the schedule.
For years, teams scattered across the expanse of the Pacific side of the continent have understandably wondered if New York and Toronto actually realize how big it is out here — the distance between some cities — and that there are more times zones than the solitary Eastern one. Is Google Maps not downloaded on the computer at NHL headquarters that annually gives teams like the Vancouver Canucks this week’s back-to-back games in Denver and St. Paul, Minn?
There are nearly a thousand miles between these cities. It takes two hours to fly between them. But since there’s also another of those bothersome time zones to cross — from Mountain to Central Time — your plane touches down in Minnesota three hours after it leaves Colorado.
After beating a Stanley Cup favorite in the Colorado Avalanche at altitude on Wednesday night, the Canucks arrived at their hotel in St. Paul at about 4 am on Thursday. The janitor let them in. A short sleep and 15 hours later, the Canucks were playing the Minnesota Wild while continuing their desperate and unlikely push for a playoff spot.
We get it — everyone has a crappy schedule at some point. No one should feel sorry for the Canucks, and certainly the Wild didn’t as the big, physical home team physically battered the visitors, before and after whistles, at the Xcel Energy Center.
But under these circumstances, and considering what’s at stake in their season, Thursday’s 3-2 overtime loss by the Canucks was in some ways just as impressive as their stunning 3-1 victory over the Avalanche less than 24 hours earlier.
The Canucks rallied from behind on JT Miller’s power-play goal in the third period, before losing 31 seconds into overtime when Miller hits the post, then let Joel Eriksson Ek, the six-foot-three slab of sandpaper, get behind him on a breakaway and badly fool Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko.
In two games in two nights in two time zones against formidable opponents, the Canucks collected three out of four points the hard way. Before this road trip began, the over/under on the first two games would have been one point. Or less.
“In all my years, I don’t remember a back-to-back where you get in at 4 am,” Canuck defenseman Luke Schenn, who has been in the NHL for 14 years, told reporters on Zoom. “That’s a challenging one.
“It’s one of those games where it was a heavy game. Start to finish, (the Wild) came and they played hard. They’re a team that’s built for the playoffs. All in all, obviously we’d love two points there, but it’s still a point that hopefully means something in the end. It was maybe not a picture-perfect game by any means, but. . . we grabbed a point. Obviously, it’s just a challenging back-to-back. Ones like that, it’s mind over matter, and we found a way to grab a point.”
In both mind and matter, Schenn was a beast. He fought Marcus Foligno 47 seconds into the game because, well, how’s it going to look for his team if the Canuck didn’t respond to the challenge?
Schenn’s 17:47 of ice time (in the other 55 minutes he was available to coach Bruce Boudreau), included six hits and a lot of pushback, especially when players like Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway, Foligno and Ryan Hartman kept finding ways to bump or whack Demko after the whistle.
The Wild, who have beefed up for the playoffs and will not be a treat for anyone to play in a seven-game series, outhit the Canucks 31-22. But Vancouver didn’t back down from the fight.
“That seems like playoff hockey right there,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said, having eaten an unpenalized punch by Greenway straight off a faceoff. “They have some big boys over there on their fourth line there. They’ve got some size and obviously play hard and play physical. It was playoff atmosphere out there for sure.
“If you want to be a hockey player and then play in the playoffs, you’ve got to embrace these types of moments, embrace these types of games, and know this part of the year that you’re going to get smacked around or you’re going to lose games.”
Horvat opened the scoring at 4:13 of the first period, pouncing on a puck that ricocheted into the slot off Wild defenseman Jacob Middleton after Minnesota goalie Cam Talbot had stopped Brock Boeser on a two-on-one.
Kirill Kaprizov tied it at 8:08 with a shot from distance after Canucks defenseman Tyler Myers chose to play the puck backwards in the defensive zone. The Wild went ahead at 1:44 of the second period when Demko failed to deal with a clean faceoff win by teammate Brad Richardson, bouncing the puck out into the slot for Kevin Fiala to finish.
But Miller tied it on the Canucks’ third power play, at 7:56 of the final period, with a wrist shot from the left-wing circle that Talbot couldn’t stop.
“I thought it was a really good point to come back in the third period,” Boudreau, the former Minnesota coach, said. “We didn’t have a lot left in the tank, and then we were holding on at the end. But we held on at the end. When you go into overtime, anything can happen. We hit the post, they come down and score. Obviously, at this stage of the season, you need those other points. But I can’t be unhappy with the fact that we got one point.”
Before the game, Boudreau said the Wild were actually a “deeper” team than the NHL-leading Avalanche.
The Canucks are suddenly a different team than the one that scuffled through a 2-3-2 homestand, losing a couple of games to non-playoff teams and generally looking exhausted, ss if they had awoken from their playoff dream.
Then Monday’s trade deadline passed, and the Canucks took three points in two games when it seemed more likely they’d get none. They can make it a winning trip by beating the Dallas Stars on Saturday. Their four-game excursion ends Monday against the St. Louis Blues.
“I think for a lot of guys, there were so many rumors going around,” Horvat said of the deadline and before-and-after Canucks. “Are we selling? People were going to get traded. It weighs on guys. It does. They see it in the media, they read it on Twitter. That can’t be easy. Now, this is our team. It has settled everybody’s mind and everybody can just go and play and this is going to be our team. We’ve just got to do it for each other in there.”
For two nights, they have.