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THE MOJ: Are the cards lining up for a Canucks/Oilers showdown for first?

If the Oilers win tonight, Saturday’s matchup could become very interesting
Goaltender Thatcher Demko speaks to the media after Thursday’s practice at Rogers Arena. Demko was slated to make his return against Calgary on Tuesday at Rogers Arena but that might be accelerated given what’s at stake Saturday in Edmonton. Vancouver Canucks photo

The Vancouver Canucks are not making it easy on themselves when it comes to clinching the Pacific Division.

Two nights after an emotional come-from-behind 4-3 win against the Vegas Golden Knights at Rogers Arena, the Arizona Coyotes came in to play what Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet warned could be a ‘trap’ game.

It was.

The Canucks were down 3-1 in the third period against the lowly Coyotes but rallied to tie the game and send it into overtime. They had an opportunity to win it on Filip Hronek’s penalty shot but he was stopped by Coyotes netminder Connor Ingram.

Thirty seconds later, Arizona’s Logan Cooley scored to give the Coyotes the win.

The good news is that the Canucks salvaged a point and the way things are going, it could wind up being a valuable one.

Vancouver sits atop the Pacific with 105 points in 79 games with the Edmonton Oilers on their heels with 101 points in 77 games.

The Oilers play the Coyotes on Friday night in Alberta.

An Edmonton win against Arizona sets up a Saturday night game in which the Oilers could be tied with the Canucks for top spot in the Pacific by the end of the night.

And the Oilers would have a game in hand.

The Canucks, however, could get some juice with the return of goaltender Thatcher Demko.

Demko has been out with an apparent knee injury that he suffered against Winnipeg on March 9. The original plan was to bring him back for the Calgary game at home next Tuesday night but with the division on the line, do the Canucks speed up the return?

Tocchet stated that Demko is ahead of schedule and has looked good in his return to practice this week although Tocchet wouldn’t commit to naming Demko the starter for the game against the Oilers.

“I honestly don’t know. We are going to go day-by-day right now,” Tocchet said after Thursday’s practice at Rogers Arena.

Demko may have slipped up in regards to his return with his media availability after the same practice.

“I’m focused on Calgary. I feel confident in this next week. So yeah, it’s going to be the main focus,” Demko replied to a question.

“You’re not focused on Edmonton?” asked Canucks Army reporter Jeff Paterson.

“You guys are the worst,” responded Demko with a laugh.

Whether or not Demko plays, a key for the Canucks is to get off to better starts.

They were down 2-0 against Vegas early in the game and didn’t capitalize against the Coyotes in the first when there were ample opportunities.

“It cost us. We gave them a couple of early goals and it’s tough to chase a good team. Edmonton is another really good team that you don’t want to chase against,” noted forward Conor Garland.

According to forward J.T. Miller, success against Edmonton means staying in the moment.

“We just have to worry about ourselves. There’s a lot of getting caught up in the (Leon) Draisaitl and (Connor) McDavid stuff. When we are on, we have proven that we can play that team tough, so we just need to worry about ourselves and getting a good start,” said Miller.

Penalties have been an issue for the Canucks as of late but that may say more about the officiating than the team itself.

Getting someone to talk about the state of officiating in the league is pretty much a no-fly zone for obvious reasons but you can guarantee that the Canucks haven’t been too happy with some of the calls they’ve seen in the last few games.

Tyler Myers and Brock Boeser both got penalized in the Arizona game on very questionable calls – calls that were more due to the reaction of the opposing player than any infraction committed by the aforementioned Canucks.

Tocchet has gone on record several times this season about players snapping their head back to get a call and the embellishing has now filtered down to other calls with Boeser’s ‘trip’ of Arizona’s Dylan Guenther in overtime a prime example of this. Referees are assuming calls rather than seeing them which reinforces the behavior of players selling penalties. As a result, the officiating has been very inconsistent due to certain inexperienced referees and them not having a feel for the game.

Staying out of the penalty box will be paramount to success come Saturday.

The Canucks will have to steer clear of the vaunted Oilers power play that features McDavid and Draisaitl and is fourth in the NHL in efficiency at 26.7%.

One thing is for certain.

The Oilers will be looking for payback after losing three games to the Canucks by a combined score of 18-6 in the first month of the season. The early season struggles eventually saw Jay Woodcroft replaced by Kris Knoblauch as head coach of the Oilers on Nov. 12. The Oilers were 3-9-1 when the change was made. They’ve gone 45-15-4 since.

“We understand that there is going to be emotion in that game. It’s a big game for both teams. I guarantee you that they’re going to have a burning fire to come out and beat us. There’s no question. It’s going to be a hell of a test for us. I wouldn’t want to play against anyone else in that game,” stated Miller.

Granted, winning the Pacific isn’t a be-all end-all but it would be a psychological blow to the team that lead it or a share of it since Dec. 20.

Yet Garland doesn’t seem to be fazed by the possibility of not finishing first in the Pacific.

“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that. I just think about having a good practice and then having a good game. They could win it. We could win it. It is what it is. Obviously, we want to win it because it means we’ve won games down the stretch but I think we are just focused on having a good game against them and see where it takes us,” he said.


* The Coyotes took to the ice Wednesday night with news breaking earlier in the day that the NHL is making dual plans for next year – one with the team located in Phoenix and one in Salt Lake City. For Tocchet – who played and coached for the Coyotes – the news hit close to home. One of his ‘pet peeves’ as he described it was the criticism of the organization. “The trainers, the team services guys, the people (that work for the team) are first-class. They’re unreal. Sometimes they go down with the ship. (People will say) it sucks there or the organization sucks but there are quality people in that organization. That’s what I hate hearing – how bad it is there. The people that work there are unreal.”

* Dylan Gunther was in on every Arizona goal with a goal and three assists. Gunther was chosen with the first-round pick that Vancouver gave to Arizona in the Olive-Ekman Larsson deal. Elias Lindholm returned to the Canucks lineup after a six-game absence due to injury.

Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media.

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