With Saturday’s 4-0 loss in Edmonton, the Canucks finished up a dizzying dozen games in just 21 nights part of a month of March that saw the Canucks suit up 16 times in 29 day span. But it was the past three weeks that offered up a challenge the likes of which players and coaches had never seen – and may never see again.
And while the loss to the Oilers didn’t go the way the hockey team had hoped, the Canucks still managed to win eight of the 12 games they played during their version of March Madness. The Canucks odyssey began with a 4-2 loss in Minnesota on March 10th and included games every other night with a pair of back-to-back sets thrown in for good measure. During the run, the Canucks played six games on home ice and six on the road, never had more than a single day off between any of the games and played at least once in all four of the time zones in the Western Conference.
“This has been one of the toughest grinds since I’ve been here,” head coach Alain Vigneault says. “We’ve had some in the past – the Olympic year there were some moments when there were some huge challenges – but this is as hard as it gets both physically and mentally. Our medical room right now after the games, there are tons of ice bags. We’re trying to make sure energy-wise that guys are staying as sharp as they can. The boys should get a lot of credit for what we’ve been through and for clawing our way into wins. At the end of the day, we’re in this business to get points and with what we’ve faced, I think our guys have done a great job.”
The challenges of a compacted schedule are many for a coaching staff accustomed to having days between games to break down film of past outings and devise strategies for the games ahead. That simply hasn’t been possible with the team spending what few off days it’s had in recent weeks in transit either or coming or going to their next contest.
And while the coach has found the schedule taxing, he doesn’t have to play the games. The guys who suit up each night are the ones who deserve the accolades. With the grind of so many games in so few nights, it makes the fact Henrik Sedin has now pushed his franchise-record consecutive game streak to 616 that much more impressive.
With teammates dropping due to all kinds of injuries, Henrik has soldiered on night after night after night leading the team with 31 points.
“I feel pretty good,” he says. “When you see those stretches as a team -- and as a hockey player -- you bear down, you’re more focused, you’re mentally prepared and you know what it takes. I think over the years, that’s when you’ve seen our team play its best hockey and getting on these runs. I think it’s something you look forward to. When you play two in six or two in seven, it’s a little bit easy to get off your game. There have been games, for sure, when I’ve felt a little bit off. That’s going to happen. This year, too, when you don’t get the time to get in the gym and work out and get back on track. So there have been games when we’ve felt tired and think that’s when you need to have a team system to fall back on so you don’t have to feel great every night.”
The fact the Canucks have had success on most nights during this run has helped ease the mental burden of so many games in such a short span of time. For winger Chris Higgins, the challenge of getting up for so many battles in such rapid succession is made much easier knowing that the team has been on a roll.
“Winning makes everything easier,” he says. “It’s been a little more difficult (this year) because we haven’t been able to get many practices in. I think guys like to use their practice time and like to have that extra day, but we haven’t been able to do that and we’ve had to conserve our energy. It hits you at different times, but you just have to push through that and know that every team is going to go through that with their schedule.”
Perhaps centre Maxim Lapierre puts it best.
“Obviously we’re playing a lot of hockey, but I think it’s great. We don’t have time to think or do anything else but play hockey. This is what we like to do,” he says. “I’ve been a little tired once in a while, but it’s good. If you rest the right way and sleep the right way, things should be alright.”
All things considered, the Canucks have been better than alright during the busiest stretch of their schedule. After a game in San Jose on Monday night, the team gets two full days between games. Given what they’ve been through of late, the players may not know what to do with so much time on their hands.