Photo Credit: Abbotsford Canucks website

*This was originally posted May 9, 2022*

Although the Abbotsford Canucks headed into their final weekend of the regular season expecting home ice advantage in their upcoming first round series, a disastrous pair of games against the Manitoba Moose changed everything. After back-to-back losses, the Canucks found themselves finishing the season fifth in the AHL’s Pacific Division, and matched up against the fourth place Bakersfield Condors in the upcoming best of three playoff series. Abby and the Condors met several times in the regular season, with sparks flying each time. However, losing the support of the Abbotsford fans would prove to have an insurmountable impact.

    There were several storylines that arose ahead of game one, with perhaps the most concerning being Abbotsford Head Coach Trent Cull’s lineup decisions. Vancouver Canucks’ 2021 second round pick Danila Klimovich, who has had his problems with Cull this season, was a healthy scratch, while Jett Woo remained on the third line wing despite having virtually no impact this season. Cull’s only saving grace was handed to him from the brass in Vancouver, as Vasili Podkolzin slotted in on the team’s first line. Podkolzin was Vancouver’s best rookie in the NHL this season, and was due for a surprise in his AHL debut. 

    After a slow start to the Abby Canucks inaugural season, the young team bought into Cull’s coaching style, and each other. They found success and chemistry during the back half of the season, which included a nine-game winning streak, and because of this they earned themselves expectations heading into their first postseason. However, this past week the Canucks fell short of their potential, as they were swept by the Condors in two heartbreaking games.

    On Tuesday night the Canucks took to the ice at Mechanics Bank Arena in front of a crowd of 3384 fans for the franchise’s first playoff game. After a measured, but tense first 15 minutes, rookie Chase Wouters sparked life into both teams. Late in the opening frame, following an unfortunate Vinny Arsenault hit along the board, a partial line brawl broke out with the Condors seeking retribution. The rookie Wouters dropped his gloves for the fifth time this season, and took on AHL veteran Luke Esposito in a spirited bout. Despite the resulting injection of energy into the game, the following period would go by without excitement as the series opener remained scoreless.

    Heading into the third period, the story of the game was Spencer Martin. Though the Abby netminder has spent parts of seven seasons in the AHL, he had yet to partake in a playoff game until tonight. Martin appeared to be the only Canucks player truly dialed through the first two periods, stopping all 21 Bakersfield shots, and keeping his team alive. Then, late in the third, Martin’s continued heroics were finally utilized by his team. With just under ten minutes to play, the Condors were caught puck watching in the neutral zone, and Sheldon Rempal took advantage. Rempal broke in over the blueline and fed the puck to defenceman Guillaume Brisebois who had jumped up into the rush. Brisebois slid the puck across the slot to Podkolzin, who had snuck through two defenders to get back door. Podkolzin whacked the puck past Stuart Skinner for his first career AHL goal, giving the Canucks the lead late. Abbotsford shut it down from there, relying on Martin’s efforts and Cull’s defensive system to hold their slim lead. Bakersfield pulled Skinner for the extra attacker with just under one minute to play and took control of the Canucks’ zone. With just 30 seconds between Abbotsford and a 1-0 series lead, Condors’ star Seth Griffith placed a perfect wrist shot over the blocker of Martin to tie the game at one and send it into overtime. 

    The two teams traded chances early in the extra frame, and with obvious defensive lapses visible, it became apparent that this game would not go the distance. Just under five minutes in, Canucks’ defenseman Noah Juulsen was sent to the box for tripping and the Condors headed to a rare overtime powerplay. Although Bakersfield had struggled on the man advantage this season, anything can happen in a sudden death playoff situation. Martin had to be sharp early, as he made two quick saves on Adam Cracknell before his penalty killers took it the other way. Abbotsford had two excellent short-handed chances, but couldn’t beat Skinner. Then, as the powerplay wound down, the Condors broke into the offensive zone with purpose. Brisebois pinched irresponsibly high in the zone, and Podkolzin couldn’t cover for him after a lethargic backcheck, resulting in Bakersfield forward James Hamblin finding the puck wide open back door and ending the game. In a split second, the Canucks had their backs against the wall. If they wanted to bring playoff hockey to Abbotsford, the team would have to win back-to-back games, and play far differently than they did in game one. Furthermore, despite the incredible weight of an elimination game upcoming, Abbotsford didn’t have long to regroup as game two was scheduled the following night.

    Despite the lack of scoring and leaky defence in game one, Canucks’ Head Coach Cull kept his lineup the same. Thanks to Abbotsford’s leading scorer Sheldon Dries, Cull received early returns from his decision. Dries got the Canucks on the board late in the opening frame, and sent them into the first intermission with the 1-0 lead. The play remained balanced in the second period, with both goaltenders staying sharp as the offense picked up. With just over a minute left in the second, the Condors rode a quick breakout through the Abby zone, catching Madison Bowey flat footed, and crashing the net to tie the game. The two teams would once again head into the third period tied. 

    Five minutes into the final frame, following a defensive zone faceoff victory from Canucks’ Matt Alfaro, Bakersfield pushed forward. Dino Kambeitz threw the puck on net, and it deflected high in the air before landing directly on Condors’ forward Brad Malone’s stick. Malone buried it past a lost Martin to give his team the 2-1 lead. Abbotsford battled back hard after being outshot and outplayed early, and as the game’s tension rose, it was only a matter of time before another tally. With seven minutes remaining, the Canucks pressured Bakersfield deep in the offensive zone, forcing a turnover. Podkolzin received the puck in the high slot and passed it to a wide-open Rempal at the faceoff dot. Rempal blasted the puck top shelf, beating Skinner and tying the game once again. 

    As time ticked down, it appeared the series would be heading for its second overtime. The Canucks’ continued to pressure, testing Skinner’s poise and hoping for late heroics. Unfortunately, with just one minute and twenty-three seconds between Abbotsford and another intermission, the team found themselves hemmed in their own zone. The Condors cycled the puck around before Luke Esposito put a weak point shot on net. The puck surprised Martin, who was unable to control the rebound. James Hamblin crashed the net, somehow sliding the puck past a sprawling Martin to Cooper Marody who buried it for his first of the postseason. The roar of the home crowd further deflated the Canucks’ who would realize their season’s end soon after. Though timeouts were called, and plays were drawn up in the final minute, it was to no avail as the buzzer sounded to end Abbotsford’s inaugural season. The teams shook hands, and that was that. It was certainly disappointing to watch the team fall short of their potential with a sweep, failing to entertain their fans’ hopes and expectations. However, there is no denying the magic that was the return of hockey to Abbotsford this season.

With Vancouver General Manager Patrik Allvin vowing to make the development of their AHL system a priority, The Abby Canucks will only improve. Next season will be a big one, seeing as it follows Allvin and Jim Rutherford’s first offseason with the organization.