VANCOUVER — So desperate are the Vancouver Canucks to suppress the external expectations that can cripple them in the playoffs, they threw Thursday's mean-nothing game against the Anaheim Ducks.
Oddly, the game still seemed to mean something to the Ducks, who rested several key players including their best one, Ryan Getzlaf, but still dominated the Canucks for two periods and won 3-1.
Those fools. You could tell the Ducks, out of the National Hockey League playoffs two of the last three years and without a second-round appearance since 2009, have no idea how to ease pressure to perform in the playoffs by deliberately blunting expectations late in the regular season.
I mean, the Ducks were trying. Even cemented as the second seed in the Western Conference, as immoveable as the Canucks are in third, the Ducks were sprinting to loose pucks, passing to guys on their own team, protecting their net and winning all the one-on-one battles. They were scoring, for crying out loud.
Let's see how that kind of reckless preparation stands them when the playoffs begins. That professionalism and work ethic never did much for the Canucks, except in 2011 when it launched them towards the Stanley Cup final. But that only happens three times every 43 years, and Vancouver still lost.
The Canucks aren't so naïve now. No way, they're falling into that hit-the-playoffs-running booby trap.
Their strategy Thursday was diabolically brilliant.
Not only will many of their overly-excitable fans be expecting nothing from the Canucks when the playoffs start next week, but the opposition will expect nothing, either.
Then the Canucks will spring like a jaguar. Or a really fast dog or some kind of springy toy.
The St. Louis Blues or San Jose Sharks or Los Angeles Kings won't know who hit them.
And when they find out, they'll think back to Thursday's game and know they've been had.
Of course, after one Vancouver playoff win, the disbelieving fans here will not only believe again but start making parade plans, then turn vengeful if those plans prove unnecessary and demand general manager Mike Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault be fired.
Except as vital fodder for newspaper columnists required to fill a 850-word space in 45 minutes, it's difficult to read much into a game in which neither team could advance or retreat in the standings and a key objective for all was to avoid any further injuries.
The Canucks, as far as we know, succeeded in this regard, and also showed traces of a heartbeat by surging in the third period – a sign of conscience.
But they lost, stalling momentum the team has been gathering the last couple of weeks, well before they overran the NHL-leading Chicago Blackhawks 3-1 on Monday.
“We're all here to compete and nobody wants to lose a game,” Canuck defenceman Jason Garrison said after players saluted the fans – with their sticks – at the end of last home game of the regular season. “We're upset with our effort and the result. It wasn't part of our game plan. We didn't want to come out flat at all.”
OK, never mind the theory about losing on purpose. We were kidding, anyway.
“Obviously, there was nothing to lose as far as the standings go,” Canuck Dan Hamhuis said. “But we still wanted to have a good game. I thought our game had been good before tonight, but we took a step back in the first two periods. We probably didn't have the right mindset.”
Like the game meant nothing and it would be a shame if someone got hurt?
“Yeah,” Hamhuis continued. “These games are hard to play. In your mind, you tell yourself you want to play 100 per cent, but it's tough to do. At least we showed some resolve in the third period.”
The Canucks have shown more than resolve recently.
They're getting close to healthy for the first time this season. Winger Chris Higgins (knee) returned against Chicago, defenceman Kevin Bieksa (lower body) is expected back for Saturday's final regular-season game in Edmonton, and defenceman Chris Tanev (ankle) skated Thursday and should be ready for the playoffs.
The power play, which unfathomably scored just twice in 20 games in the middle of the season, has been hot for three weeks and the Canucks were 7-2-1 during that time before flat-lining against the Ducks.
Cory Schneider, out with what's believed to be a minor injury that shouldn't prevent him starting the playoffs, has allowed two or fewer goals in 13 of his last 16 starts and been about as good as any goalie in the league.
Daniel and Henrik Sedin have been playing better, key defenceman Alex Edler has elevated his intensity, and Hamhuis and Garrison are playing as well as any Canuck defence tandem in several years.
There was a lot of momentum before Thursday. We'll see Saturday, when the Canucks play the Oilers, whether any of it remains.
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