If you’ve ever seen the ‘swimming’ portion of a triathlon, you have some idea of how the Western Conference has been this year, in the NHL.
It’s a tangle of arms and limbs, of mouths struggling to find air while simultaneously moving forward, toward the safety of the beach – and the next marathon, of course, the playoffs. I remember close playoff races, but none quite this cannibalistic. From first to ninth, there’s hardly a hair to separate them. Sure, Anaheim has opened up a decent lead now, but it’s a far cry from past years, where the Presidents’ Trophy winner could have lapped eighth place by the regular season race’s end.
Take the Vancouver Canucks, who were safe and bobbing last Thursday, but five days have passed and they’ve been pulled down to the tide with the others by the hands of Winnipeg, Calgary, and L.A.
“I thought we played hard the past two games,” said Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins, in the video above. “It wasn’t that we didn’t play hard. It’s not that we didn’t know how important those games were. But we have a chance at home, and that’s all you can ask for.
“We need to find some wins. There’s no excuses, we’ve gotta find them.”
Vancouver’s prize on Monday night is the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings – a team now a spit from second in the Pacific, with a fortunate schedule to finish their regular season on. L.A. has just racked up gimme wins over the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche, and their toughest test before Round 1 might just be tonight’s Canucks squad, which is still without injured forwards Brad Richardson and Zack Kassian.
Other than that, the Kings are onto Edmonton again, then Calgary, and finally the San Jose Sharks. Or maybe the San Jose Krill, based on their season. If the Kings win tonight, don’t be surprised if they’re soon finishing their regular season on a six-game winning streak, with home-ice advantage in Round 1.
It’s fair to say, anyone who started writing the Kings out of the playoff picture last week or the one before – saying L.A. was too fatigued and isn’t playing like the champion they very recently were – probably never looked at their schedule, and therefore didn’t realize they’d only play two postseason-calibre teams down the stretch.
“They (the Kings) didn’t win two Stanley Cups in three years by accident,” said Canucks winger Radim Vrbata, who leads the team with 31 goals on the season (via NHL.com). “Some teams have teams they kind of like to play against, or their style is good to play against, and then you have teams that don’t suit you well but you still have to find a way.
“I think L.A. is one of those teams that we have to find a way.”
Vancouver’s already run the gauntlet on the road through St. Louis, Nashville, Chicago, and Winnipeg. Really, going 2-2 through that sequence isn’t bad at all. But L.A. sits in wait, one final major hurdle before the Canucks close things out against the powderpuff Coyotes and Oilers, if the Canucks even have the energy to put those away when they need to.
“Before, if you would have put this group in this spot before the season started, I think we all would have liked to be here,” said Henrik Sedin, to Canucks TV. “We’re battling hard to land. We never give up. That’s a good sign. We’ve gotta move on, treat Monday’s game as a playoff game.”
(Did you see that above, where he said we’re battling hard to land. And he didn’t even know I was gonna use a swimming metaphor here.)
Fact is, the playoffs have already started for L.A., Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, and Minnesota. They’ve been playing desperate hockey for weeks now – hell, months really – as they try to jam five teams into four spots.
Vancouver might have forgotten that a week ago, when chest-pounding wins over the Predators and Blues separated them, temporarily, from the fray below them. But they’re back there now, and at least the hypothermia and panic won’t be a shock to the Canucks’ system.
Credit is due to Anaheim, St. Louis, and Nashville, or even Chicago, for how they’ve stayed on the yacht.
But it’s never a nice feeling, getting back in the water. You’ve gotta know the hustlers from fifth to ninth are banking on that.