VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks hit the road for crucial back-to-back games this week knowing full well that their season likely hangs in the balance.
With just nine contests left on the schedule and the club sitting six points adrift in the Western Conference playoff race, the Canucks have no margin for error.
“Everybody’s looking at the standings. We are too,” head coach John Tortorella said after Tuesday’s practice at Rogers Arena. “All we can do is control what we have.
“We’re going to keep on trying to battle away here and find points.”
That begins Wednesday in Minnesota against the Wild before another tough test the following night against the Colorado Avalanche.
Both teams are all but locked into playoff positions, something the Canucks can only dream of at this point.
The website www.sportsclubstats.com, which calculates teams’ playoff chances, gave the Canucks just a 2.3 per cent shot at making this year’s post-season heading into Tuesday’s action and Vancouver didn’t get much help on the out-of-town scoreboard.
The eighth-place Phoenix Coyotes—who also have nine games left—downed the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 to move to 82 points on the season. Vancouver sits 10th with 76 points, while the Dallas Stars, who dropped a 4-2 decision to the Chicago Blackhawks, sit ninth with 79 points and 10 games to play.
The Canucks’ plight represents a stunning slide for a club that has been accustomed to battling for division titles in recent years, not its playoff life.
Vancouver has won its last two games over the punchless Nashville Predators and the Buffalo Sabres to stay above water, but the Wild and Avalanche should pose a much tougher test in what could be two season-defining contests.
“We’ve been a very resilient group. We’ve been on the outside looking in for a while now and we’ve climbed right back up there,” said Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “We’ve had some tough losses for sure. There’s no hiding that, but we keeping fighting.
“We’re still here. We’re still standing.”
They might not be after this week.
But if Vancouver can survive the trip to Minnesota and Colorado, the club could have some life with six of its final seven games coming at home.
“I’m just trying to take it day by day here,” said goaltender Eddie Lack, who is expected to make his 14th straight start Wednesday. “I know (Phoenix and Dallas) have a really tough schedule left. We have a lot of home games too so hopefully we can take advantage of that and just do our part here and we’ll see if it’s enough or not.”
Canucks forward Zack Kassian said the players are aware of the out-of-town scoreboard each night, but added that the daunting task makes his preparation easier.
“We know there’s only nine and we know that every one of those games is going to be very important for our hockey team,” he said. “You definitely look (at the scores) as a team when you’re not playing and you’re seeing how other teams are doing that you’re trying to chase.
“At the end of the day if we don’t take care of our business and win hockey games it has no effect on us.”
Canucks forward Daniel Sedin said he can’t help but pay attention to other teams’ results when every point is so critical.
“I think you have to right now. We need those two teams to lose a few games,” he said. “I think you keep an eye on that, but on game day you’re so focused on your own games you don’t really worry too much about the other scores.”
Tortorella and his players both refuse to use injuries as an excuse, but the Canucks have rarely had a chance to ice their full lineup since the end of December.
Daniel Sedin returned on Sunday against Buffalo, but the club lost Henrik Sedin the same night, while fellow forward Alexandre Burrows was hurt against Nashville. Neither was expected to make the two-game road trip, but Burrows did accompany the team to Minnesota.
“It can’t be deflating. We’ve been going through this all year long. You get a couple back, another one goes out,” said Tortorella. “It’s been most of our top guys … but it can’t be deflating at this time of year. We just need to stay upbeat.”
While refusing to use injuries as a crutch to explain his team’s predicament, the fiery coach who preaches pressure in all three zones added that the crowded sick bay has left him hamstrung at times.
“The lineup when we were healthy, I think we were a different team. I think it allowed us to play a little bit differently, too,” said Tortorella. “When we started getting banged up there … we had to make some adjustments within our play and it changes things.”
Bieksa said that despite the injuries and long odds, a belief remains in the Canucks’ locker-room that the playoffs are still attainable.
“We’ve set ourselves up to make a push at least,” he said. “We’re fighting to the end. We’re not going to give up.”
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