After meaningless finale, Canucks, Jets ready for bigger, better things

By Iain MacIntyre,

Had anyone argued when the National Hockey League released its schedule last July that the final game of the season between the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets would mean nothing, a lot of fans in Canada would have been disappointed. But they would have understood.

It would have meant the Canucks, so long in a rebuild and so disappointing since it occurred, had missed the playoffs yet again. And the Jets, who regressed over the final third of last season and were excoriated by coach Rick Bowness after meekly exiting the opening round of the Stanley Cup tournament, would have taken two steps back by gutting their core and moving on from some high-priced stars.

Sure enough, Thursday’s game between the Canucks and Jets meant almost nothing. But last summer, no one would have envisioned why.

Secure with home-ice advantage to open this spring’s playoffs – having combined for 101 wins and 217 points – the reborn Canucks and refurbished Jets already had their sights on hockey’s greatest prize and the chance to become the first Canadian team in more than three decades to lift the Stanley Cup.

Neither franchise has won one, and neither can be dismissed as contenders as the Canucks prepare to open Sunday against the Nashville Predators their first playoff series in Vancouver since 2015, while the Jets start at home against the 2022 champion Colorado Avalanche.

What a hockey season it has been in Western Canada, where the Edmonton Oilers also will be included in arguably the deepest and most even Stanley Cup field in NHL history.

Thursday’s game?

The Jets won 4-2 and the contest was settled by rookie callup Nikita Chibrikov, who scored the game-winner in his NHL debut, first stealing the puck from goalie Thatcher Demko behind the Canuck net and then scoring post-and-in at 5:18 of the third period.

The Canucks rested first-line forwards J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser, and defencemen Filip Hronek and Ian Cole. The Jets’ seven scratches included Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Adam Lowry, Josh Morrissey and goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

Demko doubled his appearances (and playoff prep) since returning this week from a knee injury and made 22 saves. And star defenceman Quinn Hughes played his 82nd game of the season and collected his 92nd point, a second-period assist on Elias Lindholm’s power-play tip-in as Hughes raced to the wire with Colorado’s Cale Makar for the NHL blue-line scoring crown.

Nobody on either team appeared to get injured.

Now, on to bigger things.

“I’m very excited for this,” veteran Canuck Tyler Myers said. “You know, a bunch of us have been waiting for this for a long time, being in Vancouver. Fans have been waiting a long time to have playoffs back, and when we step out on the ice for the first time in front of the fans, step into that atmosphere that we know is coming, it’s just exciting for a player.”

The Canucks haven’t played the Predators since beating them three times in the first half of the season, when Vancouver was at its best and Nashville wasn’t. But just as the Canucks went into Edmonton last Saturday and made a statement by defeating the post-coaching-change Oilers 3-1, they’re not worried about how different the Predators might look compared to December.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” Myers said. “We got here for a certain reason; it’s focusing on us and our game and our identity as a group, and that’s the focus going into Nashville. Each team definitely does a pre-scout and we know about the other team, but ultimately it comes down to how we play our game.”

Game 1s for the Jets-Avalanche and Canucks-Predators will be a Canadian doubleheader on Sunday.

It was after losing four straight games to the Golden Knights a year ago that Bowness blasted the Jets’ top players for failing to match Vegas’ stars.

“I’m so disappointed and disgusted right now,” Bowness said on elimination night last April. “No pushback. There’s got to be pushback. There’s got to be pride.”

“We’d all agree we needed to play better,” Lowry, the Jets’ captain, told Sportsnet before Thursday’s game. “(But) we didn’t love the messaging. Rick’s an emotional guy. He wears his heart on his sleeve and he cares about every one of us. It was a motivating factor for sure.

“We had high expectations (before the season). I don’t think other people outside of our locker room maybe had the expectations that we did. But with the depth pieces we’ve added, the way we’re playing five on five, we have a lot of confidence in this group.”

Before the season, the Jets bought out former captain Blake Wheeler and dumped Pierre-Luc Dubois on the Los Angeles Kings. But they re-signed key veterans Scheifele and Hellebuyck.

With Thursday’s win, the Jets finish second in the Western Conference, one point ahead of the Canucks. Both were among the top six in the NHL.

“The big prize now is playing on Sunday,” Canuck coach Rick Tocchet said. “I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a fun time for the guys. I want them to enjoy it. We’ve got some work to do the next two or three days to prepare, and it’s going to be exciting.

“I think for our group, we just have to worry about Game 1. You can’t look at the big thing. I think . . . it’s dangerous when you think that way. Honestly, prepare for that first period against Nashville and be ready to play from that first shift. I think when you think big picture, that’s when people get nervous. So I think it’s just more of a short-term goal for us.”

Tocchet claimed he didn’t fully start thinking about the playoffs until the Canucks learned Wednesday after their flight to Winnipeg that they were locked into a matchup with the surging Predators, who went 20-5-3 the last two months to earn the top wild-card spot.

“Yeah, it’s exciting,” Demko said. “It’s what we’ve been aiming to do the last few years and haven’t been able to, so to see it come to fruition is exciting for us. Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do. It’s a good regular season for us and I’m proud of that for sure. (But) we’ve got to take another step with our game here.”

Demko said the Canucks have become a stronger team mentally.

“I think the big difference for us was just managing the highs and lows,” he said of the regular season. “You know, I think maybe in years past we might hit a couple of roadblocks or some adversity and it might throw us off our course for a week or two and hurt us in the standings. But this year, I thought our bounce back was really strong, trusting our identity, trusting our systems.”

The Canucks will take Friday off, then practise Saturday ahead of Game 1. Their first home playoff game in nine years starts at 7 p.m. PT on Sunday.

“This was our goal from the start,” veteran centre Teddy Blueger said. “Ever since we clinched (a playoff spot) we’ve kind of been looking forward to it. Everyone wants to play meaningful hockey in the spring. We’re fortunate to have that chance. Now we’ve just got to go out and make the most of it.”

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