Without otherworldly goaltending the Vancouver Canucks will not hang around in a tight Pacific Division playoff race. Especially if they can’t figure out what’s ailing them defensively.
Vancouver is four games into a six-game Eastern Conference road swing. Though the club’s recent results have been respectable – with Tuesday night’s 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Rangers, the club has actually managed to pick up points in three of the four games – their defensive play has been outrageously permissive.
“We’re giving up an unfathomable amount of shots, it’s ridiculous,” summed up Canucks defenceman Matt Bartkowski following Tuesday night’s overtime loss.
Facing a Rangers team that hasn’t been all that effective at generating offence or pressure, the Canucks surrendered 46 shots on goal. It was the fourth consecutive game in which Vancouver allowed more than 40 shots against, something that hasn’t happened to the franchise since 1989-90. Seven players on the Canucks’ current roster weren’t even born yet.
This is a club that is reaching a level of defensive ineptitude so significant that it’s becoming historic.
"It's a concern (to be playing this way),” admitted Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins. “You know that over time you're not going to get points in games like this.
"We didn't deserve points,” Desjardins added later in his postgame availability.
It may have been a tough night for the Canucks, but there were some significant silver linings. For a team that still has designs on qualifying for the playoffs, the single point is far from nothing, and of course, Canucks starter Ryan Miller – who only returned from injury late last week - was electric.
Miller stole the show at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday evening, turning in a remarkable 46-save performance. He benefitted from the Rangers hitting five posts, but that shouldn’t take away from a spectacular outing. The Canucks goaltender turned away five-alarm chance after five-alarm chance. He singlehandedly earned a point for his team.
“We got one (point) today but that's all (Miller),” said Canucks forward Jannik Hansen. “We'll take that point and move on."
Since returning from an undisclosed injury, Miller has faced 136 shots. He’s stopped 129 of them. At no point on Tuesday night, even as the Rangers buried the Canucks in quality scoring chances, did Miller appear to be anything but cool and collected.
The veteran Canucks starter is the only reason the team will leave the New York area having banked three of a possible four points. He’s the only reason the club’s regulation loss in Washington last week wasn’t a blowout.
“That Washington game it was only 4-1, but it could've been 8-1," recalled Bartkowski.
Perhaps Miller’s best moment on Thursday came during some intense Rangers pressure in the third period. Some excellent passing brought the puck from down low on the left side of the defensive zone to the right point. Reacting to the puck movement, Miller pushed out of a reverse-VH position on the right side of his net and attempted to stop a Kevin Klein point shot with his entire body in white ice.
Miller made the save, but couldn’t quite control the rebound, and Rangers forward Viktor Stalberg appeared to have a gimme game-tying goal. Instead, Miller moved laterally and reached back to make a stunning desperation save:
“It came off a little hot,” Miller said of the rebound. “I just had to fight it off.
“Fortunately I put my hand down in time where I could get some strength on the puck, where I didn't just get my hand down but got it down where I could fight for that ice."
As good as Miller has been, and as much as he insists he ‘flows with the game’ a bit better when he’s seeing a lot of shots, if the Canucks can’t tighten up defensively, they risk more than simply hanging their starter out to dry. They may risk not having him around to lean on at all.
“You think about your conditioning,” Miller said of returning from injury in games like these, games in which he’s facing a lot of shots. “The injury I had was kind of a fatigue-type injury, it was something that comes up if you have fatigue, so, it's just important to stay hydrated and conserve where you can both physically and mentally."
There’s little doubt that the Canucks overused Miller in the opening month-and-a-half of the season. They have to be more judicious down the stretch, especially if Miller is going to be staring down the barrel of 40 shots every outing.
"We'll evaluate it after,” Desjardins said when asked about whether or not Miller or backup Jacob Markstrom would start next game. “The nice thing is that we have two goalies that can play. The one guy has taken a lot of shots the last couple of nights, so we want to make sure we play him when he's fresh, so it might be time to give him a breather."
There’s no “might” about it. For about a month, the Canucks have been almost entirely dependent on their goaltenders. And if the club can’t defend in front of them, it’s even more important to make sure they’re rested.