Eliminated Canucks hope second-half surge carries over to next season

VANCOUVER — In their first game that fully didn’t matter, which remarkably wasn’t until Game 81, the Vancouver Canucks looked Thursday like their season condensed to 65 minutes.

Finally eliminated from the National Hockey League playoff race during Tuesday’s game against the Seattle Kraken, the Canucks started Thursday against the Los Angeles Kings with the same flatness and lack of cohesion and execution that characterized a 6-14-2 opening quarter that eventually doomed their season.

Given the circumstances — the exhaustion of the sprint back to the playoff race the last four months and the disappointment at the finish line — the Canucks’ play was far more understandable in late April than it was back in November.

But Thursday, as it was when winter began, the Canucks found something when it looked hopeless and finished the game as a completely different team. They rallied from a two-goal deficit in the third period to beat the playoff-bound Kings 3-2 on Brock Boeser’s goal with 29.7 seconds remaining in overtime.

Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said after the morning skate that there is always something to play for. He’s right. This is professional sports; there is always someone watching, always something to prove.

Still, for 40 minutes, the Kings were playing with the intensity to get ready for the playoffs, the Canucks with the intensity of preparing for a week in Hawaii. But when Boeser scored on a power play at 6:52 of the third period, to cut to one a deficit that could have been three or four goals were it not for Vancouver’s goalie, minor-league callup Spencer Martin, the Canucks were again transformed to a playoff-calibre team.

Alex Chiasson hacked in a loose puck to tie it 2-2 at 14:31 of the final period after a sublime pirouette with the puck inside the blue line by Quinn Hughes allowed the defenceman to disappear in front of King Gabriel Vilardi and conjure a scoring chance out of nothing.

Then Boeser, near the end of his own difficult season, won it in overtime when he had three chances in front of Los Angeles goalie Cal Petersen, finally burying the third one after Elias Pettersson had worked the end boards to keep the puck alive.

With Friday’s game remaining in Edmonton against the Oilers, the Canucks hit 40 wins and surpassed the 90-point mark. They prevented the Kings, in their final game, from reaching 100 points, and the Canucks closed their mad dash through April at 6-0-2 on home ice.

Thursday was their final game at Rogers Arena, and possibly the final one in Vancouver as a Canuck for Boeser, a looming restricted free-agent whose $7.5-million-US qualifying offer is a landmine the team must navigate this summer.

It was Fan Appreciation Night, and since Boudreau was hired on Dec. 5, Canuck fans have appreciated a team that went 32-15-9.

After Vancouver players honoured Kings captain Dustin Brown by shaking his hand after he played the last of his 1,296 regular-season games for Los Angeles, Canucks veteran Luke Schenn was handed a microphone and spoke to fans.

“It is a privilege for us as players to play in front of you guys every night,” Schenn said. “You guys bring so much excitement and joy to us. So thank you. We look forward to playing in front of you guys next year and picking up right where we left off this year.”

And that is the big bet on next season — that the Canucks who played .652 hockey under Boudreau, 10th best in the NHL since Dec. 5 — can be that team next season.

They’ll need a lot to go right on an individual basis: the affirmation of Thatcher Demko as an elite NHL goalie, the continued ascendency of Hughes and Pettersson, another formidable season from J.T. Miller (if he’s back for the final year of his contract), another 30 goals from captain Bo Horvat and more from Oliver Ekman-Larsson and others.

They’ll also need further development from Vasily Podkolzin, who is for now the last of a series of impact prospects to march into the NHL with the Canucks over successive seasons. The 20-year-old Russian, picked 10th overall in the 2019 draft by former Vancouver general manager Jim Benning, has four goals and nine points in the last 10 games.

Before Boudreau healthy-scratched him Jan. 31 in Chicago, Podkolzin had seven goals and 10 points in 42 games. He nearly won Thursday’s game but fired off the outside of the post with about a minute left in regulation.

“It’s been hard work for me,” Podkolzin, speaking enthusiastically in English, said after Thursday’s morning skate in his first media availability since training camp. “It’s been so many new things, like another system. But right now, it’s really better.

“I think I took time to adapt. First part (of the season) was something new for me, something new like a player, like a person. I didn’t know nothing. Second part, I get a little confidence and I felt really better. I remember. . . when I meet Bruce, he told me like: ‘You’re a good player, you can play in NHL, you’re going to be a good player in this league.’ These words, like, really helped me and I got a little confidence.”

Importantly, Podkolzin seems to fully embrace the challenge of adapting to a new league and culture, which were hardships too great to endure for a couple of earlier Russian players who came to the Canucks and then abandoned their NHL dreams for the comfort of home.

“I’m still learning, like, every day about English, about hockey, as a player, as a person, too,” he said. “It’s really good I headed over here.

“I’m really happy to be in Vancouver, to be in NHL. I think I could (play) better for the team, but I think I’ve got hard work in summer and be ready and be better for next season. I’m really happy to be here. I have great coach, great teammates, great organization.”

And all of them better next year, they hope.

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