Irony of Defeat: Overachieving Canucks Underestimate Overachieving Flames, Lose Series

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

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You’re between two minds, right now, if you’re a Vancouver Canucks fan. You’re always been between two minds, actually, if you’re a Vancouver Canucks fan.

It’s a on one handon the other hand sort of thing.

On one hand, this was a successful season. Right? I mean, the team went from the Middle Ages to the dance with dragons in only a short summer’s turnaround – from the last gasp of Gillis’s regime to a realistic, renewed, hopeful horizon on the mast of a ship steered by Jim Benning and Trevor Linden.

On the other hand, isn’t every loss disappointing?

Even if you surged ahead of (most of) California to 101 points and the first-round, way farther than your critics thought you’d get, aren’t you still pissed you lost in the end? And if you’re not, you shouldn’t be a hockey player. (And doesn’t it hurt, just a little bit, that the team you lost to had an even lower ceiling when the season started?)

On one hand, you have to like the Canucks’ youth. It’s been said over and over that they’ve re-stocked the cupboard, expediting the development of Bo Horvat, finding gems like Ronalds Kenins, cultivating chips in the AHL like Brendan Gaunce, Nicklas Jensen, Hunter Shinkaruk, Adam Clendening, and Frankie Corrado. Not to mention the Canucks have pissed on some prized teenage fire hydrants – Jake Virtanen, Cole Cassels, Jared McCann, Jordan Subban, Thatcher Demko, and Anton Cederholm, with another couple to come in June’s draft.

Yes, the future finally looks bright(er) in Vancouver.

On the other hand, though, can our kids really compete with the rest of the Pacific’s? Edmonton’s going to get Connor McDavid to play alongside the prized rubble of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and Leon Draisaitl. Calgary just beat our NHL team with last season’s AHL team – rookies Sam Bennett and Johnny Gaudreau were their best forwards in the series, while Sean Monahan scored 31 goals this year at age 20. TJ Brodie just Drew Doughty’d us – and he’s only 24. The Arizona Coyotes even, they’re going to draft third overall in June and they started their rebuild months ago. They also don’t have the pressure of having to make the playoffs every year – the league will bail them out no matter how broke they are, they don’t have to worry about sponsorships or selling out, and they’ve got the sunny climate that attracts Canadian prairie kids come free agency.

So, Vancouver’s got some young talent. But others have more, don’t they?

(And perhaps the Sedin twins – Henrik, for sure – can play at an elite level until they’re 38, even 40. But you’ll need a succession plan for them eventually, or immediately, because Vegas odds are they’re not winning a Cup in Vancouver.)

On one hand, the Canucks played a good series and lost to a charging team. There’s no silver living in losing, but there’s no shame in going down leaning forward, right?

On the other hand, the Canucks threw away Game 1 with a sloppy defensive finish. On that same hand, they pissed away all three games in Calgary – and blew a 3-0 lead in Game 6. The Flames deserved the series, but it was there for the Canucks, if they wanted it.

On one hand, the Canucks were consistently screwed toward the end of this six-game series by the NHL’s ‘game management’ bull. Nowhere was this more clear than in the finale – Calgary wasn’t called for a penalty once in the game’s final 49 minutes, and Vancouver’s Brandon McMillan was in the box when the Flames tied the game with four minutes to play. The ‘goalie interference’ McMillan was sin-binned for was a sham – he didn’t even hit Calgary’s goalie. It was a deliberate attempt from the Foot Locker employees on the ice to get this game to overtime.

(NOTE to the NHL: Stop tainting your game with this unrelenting score manipulation. Chances are, the Flames might have tied it 5-on-5. Fact is, they won the series fairly. But why, why, why should a team be just flat-out given a powerplay because they’re losing? Hockey’s a competition, not a charity.)

On the other hand though, the best teams kill off the injustices they’ve been served. Excuses are comfort food.

On one hand, this was a great step-forward for several Canucks in question. Both Yannick Weber and Derek Dorsett jumped from bubble players to cogs that held a playoff team intact. Radim Vrbata led Vancouver in scoring and was named the club’s MVP and its only All-Star, all in his first season on the West Coast. Ryan Miller provided a starter’s stability in net, and his play (and eventual injury) allowed backup Eddie Lack the runway to take flight. Shawn Matthias will be a guy the team needs to re-sign this summer, while Alex Burrows and Alex Edler are once again key players in this team’s core.

On the other hand, Vrbata’s regular season excellence wasn’t rewarded by coach Willie Desjardins – the freshman bench boss trapped the team’s leading scorer on the second line for the entire Calgary series, refusing to play Vrbata full-time with the Sedins, never once going all-in with pocket Kings. (The sniper’s only two goals of this series were an empty-netter in Game 2 and a powerplay goal in Game 6. Guess who passed him the puck for the second one? Hint: it was a Twin.)

On the other hand, Miller went all Luongo in Game 6 – he stopped a few shots, but he never once made a save. The former Vezina winner was overshadowed by a very good Hiller-Ramo combo, and couldn’t even get his glove up to stop Matt Stajan’s winning goal, a broken wrist shot somehow roofed from 10 feet out.

On the other hand, Matthias was invisible against Calgary, Kevin Bieksa and Luca Sbisa were unfortunately very visible, Alex Edler was swamped trying to protect Sparta with an army of 300, and Alex Burrows broke a rib and played half the series.

On one hand, 2015 was a triumphant ride back to relevance after the black hole that was 2014.

On the other hand, at least when Tortorella failed we got a sixth overall pick out of it.

You could say Vancouver’s fragile face was exposed by the Flames. While the Canucks were thinking about whether games were must-win, Calgary played every game like it was a seventh and deciding. They seemed to know – them and the Sedins and Bo Horvat – that, in the playoffs, every game is must-win.

They all matter. Certainly, this series proved that throwing away a Game 1 will come back to chomp you in the ass. And if you can’t win on the road, you won’t win the series.

But you could also say, Vancouver’s been exploited this way for years now. Even their great run to the Cup in 2011 was almost exploded at the hands of the eighth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks. In their two years prior, they were slammed home emphatically in the second round, both times by the Hawks – both were so close but yet so far, it was like Chicago swept us while still taking six games to close it out.

The misses and whiffs we saw on Saturday are the same misses and whiffs we’ve seen since 2009 – three of the past six times the Canucks have been eliminated from the playoffs, they allowed seven goals in their final game, all of them a Game 6.

(Granted, two of the seven Calgary scored were last-minute empty-netters. But still, Toronto only sees the box score.)

Throughout it all, the Sedins have been excellent – Hall of Famers, really – and the supporting cast has been just that. A supporting cast.

But support needs to be an action. Vancouver’s got the clay, Calgary came out hurling rocks.

On one hand, it’s just a game.

On the other, nothing ever is.