Vancouver Canucks clinch 1st Stanley Cup playoff berth since 2020

Ian Cole vividly recalls how he felt before skating out for his first NHL playoff game.

“Honestly, I just remember being scared,” he said, punctuating his sentence with a mild expletive.

“You’re so scared because you know how important it is. You’re like ‘Just don’t make a mistake! Don’t make a mistake! Don’t make a mistake!”‘

The fear didn’t last, but Cole’s playoff career did. The veteran defenceman has made 116 post-season appearances and he won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.

Now he’s sharing that experience with his Vancouver Canucks teammates as they prepare for their first playoff run in four years.

“I think the biggest thing that we should focus on is getting our game to its peak, to the very best it can be before we enter into battle,” Cole said.

The Canucks (45-20-8) secured their post-season berth on Saturday, becoming the first Canadian team to book their spot.

The upcoming run has been a long time coming.

The Canucks last played post-season hockey in Edmonton at the end of the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.

Six players from that squad are on the current roster. But games in the bubble didn’t provide a typical playoff experience, said Canucks forward J.T. Miller.

‘Learned a lot’ from past playoffs

“We had some special times as a team. That’s the only thing you’re really going to take away,” said Miller, who’s seen action in 78 playoff games, including Eastern Conference finals with the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers.

“The intensity is in the game but there’s just no emotion in the game, obviously. And that’s a gigantic part of the game. I’m not going to discredit the teams that went far. It was a hard time, but we learned a lot.”

The Canucks haven’t hosted a playoff game since 2015. Three of Vancouver’s top stars — right-winger Brock Boeser, centre Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes — hadn’t been drafted at the time.

It’s the same game, but it’s not the same desperation. … Every play matters exponentially more.— Canucks defenceman Ian Cole on NHL playoff hockey

They’re among several Canucks players who’ll get their first taste of true NHL playoff action next month.

The team’s veterans, including Cole, are keen to share lessons they’ve learned along the way.

“For the most part, the message is just that it’s the same game,” Cole said. “Let’s not make it something that it’s not. Let’s not make it this entity that’s so massive that you can’t process the situation.

“It’s the same game, but it’s not the same desperation. The desperation goes up. Every play matters exponentially more.”

As the intensity ramps up, so does the need to pay attention to the little parts of your game, said Teddy Blueger.

“Obviously the cost of mistakes is a little higher,” said the centre, who won a Stanley Cup with the Vegas Golden Knights last season. “So I think you’ve just got to be really dialed in and focused and committed to doing your job, be willing to put your body on the line physically, blocking shots, all those little details.

“A lot of playoffs games or even regular-season games are decided by really small margins. It’s a matter of kind of getting all those little details dialed in playing hard, doing your job and executing well.”

One difference between the regular season and a best-of-seven matchup is the ebbs and flows that come with a series, said Nikita Zadorov.

‘Emotional swings’ in 7-game series

“It’s no panic, it’s long game,” said the defenceman, who’s played 45 post-season contests. “It’s a seven-game series, anything can happen. There’s definitely emotional swings during the series so I think you’re going to win those momentum games. There’s a lot of games inside the games, there’s a lot of tricks, for sure.”

Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet has seen many of those tricks first hand.

During his playing career, the power forward suited up for 145 playoff games and won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 1992. He added two more championship titles to his resume as an assistant coach for the Penguins in 2016 and 2017.

Coaches have a key role to play in keeping players on an even keel as they weather the emotions of playoff hockey, Tocchet said.

“We’ve got to be calm, too. You’re in a plane and the cockpit door’s open and you see the pilot in turbulence, biting his nails and sweating, what are you gonna do?” he said. “So I can’t be biting my nails, being (upset). Like, I’ve got to be calm too.”

The Canucks have hovered near the top of the NHL standings for much of the season and, with nine games to play, they lead the Pacific Division, four points up on the Edmonton Oilers.

There have been challenges, including a stretch in February where Vancouver went seven games without a win in regulation (1-5-1). But there have been successes, too, like the 11-game point streak (9-0-2) the Canucks were on heading into the all-star break.

Lessons learned throughout the campaign will serve the team well in the coming weeks, Cole said.

“I think that consistency can give you something to kind of lean on when things get stressful and in situations that go haywire. Because inevitably they will,” he said.

“They’ll win a game, you’ll be down 5-on-3, whatever the case may be. You’re going to have to lean on what you’ve experienced throughout the course of the year.”

The Canucks will be back in action Sunday when they host the Anaheim Ducks at 3:30 p.m. ET.


Posted in CBC