The last time the Vancouver Canucks showed the defending champions the door, it was 2011 and they came within one agonizing game of winning the Stanley Cup. But that was expected. The Canucks had finished on top of the overall NHL standings by 10 points and were an emerging powerhouse.
But this? As we’ve come to learn, anything can happen in the playoffs, and that unpredictability is even more likely when the teams have been off for five months and are playing the playoff tournament in an isolated bubble. And whether or not the NHL invited 16 or 24 teams, the Canucks were a legitimate playoff team when the league paused in March, sitting with the third-best points percentage in the Pacific Division. We get all that, but not only did the Canucks beat the St. Louis Blues, they also dictated the pace of play and performed with a confidence that only comes with youthful ignorance. Former Canucks coach and current Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, when he felt like more than grunting during his media briefings, said at one point during the playoffs that even he wasn’t sure whether the fine play of his young players was due to confidence or “dumbness”. Whatever it is with the Canucks, it’s working.
So any resemblance between the Canucks of 2011 and the version we’re watching nine years later is coincidental. Unless you consider, of course, that this Canucks team aspires to become what the 2011 team was, and more. It’s fairly clear at this point that the Canucks are on the cusp of something special and as of today, we begin marking time to when that will happen. It might be sooner than we all expect. Canucks coach Travis Green said before the series that his team wasn’t coming into the playoffs as a cute, cuddly teddy bear that was satisfied to be there. And his team played that way against the Blues.
“I’m proud of them…they came into the series expecting to win,” Green said. “They played like they believed they could win. They were confident. (The Blues) are the Stanley Cup champions and they’ve got almost the same team back. What our guys did, I’m proud of them.”
And he should be. Almost half of the Canucks lineup had never played in an NHL playoff game prior to three weeks ago and the organization, as a whole, had not won a post-season round since that magical run to the Cup final. So often in this sport, contending teams are defined by the window they have to win. That’s the reality of the salary cap era. The Canucks’ window wasn’t supposed to be now, but here they are, cracking it wide open and enjoying the refreshing breeze that comes with being among the last eight in the Stanley Cup tournament.
So now comes the expectation part of it. Not necessarily in this round, where the Canucks will face the Vegas Golden Knights in a series that matches two very fast, very entertaining teams that like to pursue the puck and push the issue. But, then again, why not put some pressure on this group to win? By accelerating the program, that pressure is going to be there anyway when they assemble for training camp in November, regardless of what they do the rest of these playoffs.
And that’s where the Canucks will face their next long-term hurdle. Throughout its history, the NHL is chock full of Stanley Cup teams that had to be delivered a soul-sucking gut punch in the playoffs in order to learn how to become a champion. That is clearly not going to happen in this post-season, regardless of what happens against the Golden Knights. But it could in future years as this group gels into a championship-caliber team. Or not, since this group, and particularly its young players, has already proved that it is capable of hanging with the best teams in the NHL. This is all happening so fast though.
“The character that we have in the room, we have a great group of guys that have a lot of fun together,” said veteran Jay Beagle, who scored in the knockout game. “And when you have that and mix some skill in there, you make for a great team. That will to win, that hunger to win, I saw it from Day 1 when we came in. We’re kind of seeing what we all in the room knew already. But we’re seeing it now in the playoffs.”