What was particularly unique about this NHL season was the immediate divide which formed between the teams that managed a level of competence and those who hadn't. Chasms formed at the postseason boundary, and it seemed unlikely — even as early as the extended COVID-19 holiday — that a team would be capable of traversing that space.
That's held true for the most part, especially in the Eastern Conference. But now into the final two weeks of the season, one team is threatening to cover that ground.
The Vancouver Canucks won their sixth game in a row on Monday night, handily beating one of the other bubble teams involved in the postseason chase in the Dallas Stars. Once without a hope, they are now just four points back in the division, and five in the wild card, while holding a game in hand on other players in a chase heading into the final stages. One of the teams running out of runway is the Vegas Golden Knights, who stand in the Canucks' way of simply tracking down the division's third-seeded Los Angeles Kings.
In any case, if the Canucks do manage to pound down a door, they will have had to outperform a combination of teams to have done so.
Either door — be it into the Pacific Division's top three or the wild card — requires the same thing of the Canucks, which is a near-perfect run down the stretch. Vancouver has six games left, including three versus teams holding down postseason spots in the division, another against a playoff team in the opposite division, and two versus non-playoff teams. Five wins from the remaining six — and 96 points on the season — wouldn't necessarily be enough.
It's an extreme long shot, and probably not the outcome anyone should anticipate. But since the moment Bruce Boudreau arrived in town, we have had to be careful putting a lid on our expectations.
If it were a truer meritocracy, or a definitive measure of the very best 16 teams in the NHL in this exact moment, the Canucks would earn entry into the Stanley Cup playoffs without much question. Since the change at coach, and more specifically the guidance switching from Travis Green to Boudreau, the Canucks are 30-13-8 and own the sixth-best record by points percentage in the entire NHL. They are just below the Carolina Hurricanes and slightly ahead of the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins, wedged smack-dab in the middle of the shortlist of teams considered legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup.
Vancouver stands out in several ways beyond the obvious when examining the list of top-performing teams over the last four months. These are the teams that loaded up at the trade deadline, while Vancouver was criticized for not selling enough. There are other, less-impressive factors that suggest the Canucks are outliers, too, including a negative over shot-attempt share and the second-best overall save percentage behind the great Thatcher Demko propping up some average offensive numbers.
Many things point to the Canucks not belonging — numbers and common sense each work fine. And yet here they stand, performing among the best teams for the large majority of the season. And more importantly, since turning the page on the one thing that can undermine the success of a team: a fractured relationship between previous coach and team.
It is that start under Green, and the performance that looked more like protest from players like Elias Pettersson, which will likely prove to be insurmountable.
In some ways, though, falling just short of the postseason is the best result for a team in a position like Vancouver is in. A renewed confidence without false belief. A coach that is clearly right for this team. A new executive team with a better idea of what's real, and what's not, as it charts out the path for the future.
It started out as the season from hell. This was a last-place team when it made the changes that needed to be made.
Now, despite what happens over the next six games and perhaps beyond, it's hard to spin it as anything short as a success.
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