While the remaining active NHL teams are competing in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks are closing out their seasons with little on the line.
Sunday’s clash in Vancouver will kick off three consecutive meetings between the Flames (24-26-3, 51 points) and Canucks (22-28-3, 47 points) as the clubs close out disappointing regular seasons. The rivals also will play Tuesday in Vancouver before their finale Wednesday afternoon in Calgary. The Flames have won five of seven previous clashes, including a 4-1 affair on Thursday.
The trio of remaining contests — delayed because of the Canucks’ earlier COVID-19 outbreak — will count in the standings, of course, but the Flames will use them to evaluate a handful of young players in their system. Forwards Adam Ruzicka, Matthew Phillips and Luke Philp and defenseman Alexander Yelesin enjoyed strong seasons with the American Hockey League’s Stockton Heat.
“I want to make sure Ruzicka gets a couple of games, for sure. I’d like to look at a couple of the other kids from Stockton, for sure,” coach Darryl Sutter said. “They’re all gonna get in. I just want to make sure it’s not a one-and-done. It’s going to be back-to-backs somewhere.”
Ruzicka, a 6-foot-4 forward drafted in the fourth round in 2017, led the Heat with 11 goals and added 10 assists to tie for the team lead in points.
“I’m just waiting for an opportunity and just working on my game and for the last couple of days I’ve been practicing with the main team,” Ruzicka said. “I’m happy about that and just waiting for my opportunity to play. It’s definitely rewarding after the whole season.”
Phillips, who tied Ruzicka for points with the Heat, is a 5-7 winger.
“Being in my third year (as a) pro I have a good understanding of what it takes to be consistent and be good in practice and put my best foot forward, so that’s all I’m trying to do,” Phillips said.
The Canucks return home after snapping a two-game losing skid with a 4-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday.
“We want to win every time we’re on the ice,” goaltender Thatcher Demko said. “There’s no point showing up to the rink and giving a half-effort. We’re all competitors and all have pride in the organization and pride in ourselves. If you’re not giving 100 percent, you’re just letting down the guy next to you. That’s something that’s not going to fly here.”
Despite what appears to be a one-sided final score in Edmonton, Demko made quite the impact. He provided a handful of highlight-reel saves when the game was tied, including a late second-period stop on Alex Chiasson.
“I knew it was going to be a desperation play,” Demko said. “I got my eyes on it and knew he was in a good enough spot to raise it, so I was just trying to elevate my leg a bit to give myself a chance to get a piece of it.”
If this season hasn’t been odd enough given the COVID-19 pandemic, the Flames and Canucks will skate in a mini-series while the actual Stanley Cup chase has started, definitely a twist to hockey life.
However, players on both teams will tune into the playoff action.
“I like watching playoff hockey,” Vancouver captain Bo Horvat said. “I think it makes you excited and hungry for next year. It drives me to want to be in the playoffs next year.”
–Field Level Media