Postseason takeaways a mixed bag for Canucks

Darren Francis Photography

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The wounds were still fresh when the Abbotsford Canucks met with reporters after their season-ending loss to the Ontario Reign on Wednesday night.

“I don’t think we reached our potential, and that’s what stings right now,” captain Chase Wouters said.

The disappointment was evident. The Canucks’ offense, which had averaged 3.25 goals per game in the regular season – seventh-best in the AHL – and had produced 10 goals in three games during the first round against Colorado, came up against a stingy Ontario club and managed to score just four times in the Reign’s three-game sweep. When the Canucks did manage to open up a 2-0 lead in Game 3, Ontario responded with three goals in a span of 81 seconds.

Said Abbotsford head coach Jeremy Colliton, “The standard to win at this time of year is high, and when you don’t meet it you’re punished. As a team, I don’t think we played to our level the whole series, which is disappointing because this is the time of year where you have to play your best to advance.

“They’ve got to learn from it,” Colliton continued. “Every game that we get to play in the playoffs is huge. It’s experience for everyone and an opportunity to show that you can play at a higher level. The level continues to go up, the competition goes up, and you either step up and show you can do it or you’re done and you’re shaking hands. That’s where we’re at.”

On the other hand, there are plenty of positives to take away for the Canucks. They eliminated a strong opponent in the Eagles, going into a hostile Blue Arena and winning two of three games, including the series-clincher in overtime.

And they made their way without goaltenders Artūrs Šilovs and Nikita Tolopilo, who both remain on recall with the Vancouver Canucks for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Abbotsford turned to Zach Sawchenko, who had played only six regular-season games, and he performed admirably in his six playoff starts – including a 47-save performance to eliminate Colorado in Game 3.

“He’s awesome,” Wouters said of Sawchenko, who spent the whole season with Abbotsford but did not get into his first game until Mar. 16. “He never complained once all year. He showed up with a smile on his face. He’s a great teammate, and we were lucky to have him here.”

Colliton echoed that praise for Sawchenko.

“Good example for the group on how you’ve got to prepare for your opportunity. You never know when it’s going to come. He is a really good pro and very well-liked, very respected by the group for how he carried himself all year.”

Abbotsford went 40-25-5-2 in the regular season, the second season in a row that the team has reached the 40-win mark. The team did so with Christian Wolanin, last season’s Eddie Shore Award winner as the AHL’s top defenseman, limited to 42 games by injury. Blueliner Guillaume Brisebois only played eight games because of injury, and defenseman Jack Rathbone was traded to Pittsburgh after only two games. Forward Nils Åman departed in November and stayed in Vancouver.

Still, Abbotsford adapted in the demanding Pacific Division. As Colliton pointed out, the club has seen the ever-increasing standard that the Calder Cup Playoffs will demand from any club that advances.

With Vancouver now facing Edmonton in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, optimism is high around the organization, and Abbotsford has played a significant role in that. Šilovs has become one of the biggest stories of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, stepping into the crease following injuries to Thatcher Demko and Casey DeSmith. After spending 45 games with Abbotsford last season, Nils Höglander became a 24-goal scorer in Vancouver. Defenseman Noah Juulsen and forward Phil Di Giuseppe revived their careers with Abbotsford before sticking with Vancouver this season.

And down the road in the Fraser Valley, young prospects like Linus Karlsson, Vasily Podkolzin, Akito Hirose, Aatu Räty, Jett Woo, Cole McWard and AHL All-Star Arshdeep Bains continued to make strides.

“We grew a lot as a team, and I think all of the guys in the room grew as players and as people, and that’s what you strive for,” Wouters said.

“We went through a lot of adversity this year, and I think that’s going to help every guy in that room moving forward in their career. Obviously everyone wants to get to the next level, and I think that’s only going to help all the young guys get there.”

Seeing it all end against Ontario leaves some disappointment. That is the nature of player development: It can be exhilarating one week and disappointing the next. If those highs and lows can be used to fuel future growth, however, they can be productive long-term.

“I said it to the group after the game,” Colliton continued. “Part of the reason why I’m very disappointed is because I thought this group had a chance to do more.

“We fought through a lot this year. The injuries seemed to never stop. We were a younger group than last year, so there’s growing pains associated with that. It was inconsistent, but we found a way to put it together. It’s part compliment to the group, and part regret there because we left some on the table.”