Takeaways: Canucks exit weekend with less than they deserve

Brendan Gallagher scored the game-winning goal in the third period to give the Montreal Canadiens a 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

One night after blowing a two-goal lead to lose, the Vancouver Canucks overcame a two-goal deficit – and lost again. That’s how losing teams lose.

Michael Del Zotto’s first goal in two months briefly lifted the Canucks into a tie in Montreal early in the third period Sunday, but the Canadiens scored three times on Vancouver turnovers in the final 12 minutes and won 5-2 as the Canucks lost for eighth time in nine National Hockey League games.

In another time, playing the same way, the Canucks would have earned more on the weekend than just one out of four points. They were excellent Saturday in Toronto and decent in Montreal, but managed only a single point from a 3-2 shootout loss against the Maple Leafs in a game the Canucks led 2-0 nearly halfway through the third period.

Against the Canadiens, their sloppiness with the puck eventually cost them as Sam Gagner’s turnover along the boards turned into a winning goal 8:44 into the final frame when Brendan Gallagher buried the generous rebound from Karl Alzner’s point shot to break the 2-2 draw.

Canadiens Paul Byron and Max Pacioretty, into an empty net, scored in the final 75 seconds after Canuck giveaways up ice.

The return of first-line winger Sven Baertschi from a broken jaw suffered Dec. 9 did nothing to stop the Canucks’ slide down the standings, which began when linemate Bo Horvat broke his foot on Dec. 5. Since then, the Canucks are 2-10-2 and have surrendered four or more goals 10 times.

CREASE CRISIS

For a change, nobody could blame backup goalie Anders Nilsson for the loss, although he spring-loaded a rebound back out in the slot to Gallagher on the winner. Winless in five starts since November, Nilsson stopped 40 of 44 shots against the Canadiens and made a pile of strong saves to keep the Canucks close as they chased the game.

Starter Jacob Markstrom was terrific for the first 65 minutes in Toronto and probably could have played both weekend games given the Canucks’ light schedule lately and the proximity of the two cities. But Canucks coach Travis Green, who was combative when questioned last week about playing Nilsson, clearly wants to keep both goalies involved. For better or worse.

Even allowing four goals, this was Nilsson’s best game since his last win – the emotional 4-3 victory Nov. 30 in Nashville on the day the Canucks announced Derek Dorsett’s career was over. So, at least there is that.

THE BROCKET RIDE

No Canuck had a better weekend than Brock Boeser. It wasn’t so much that he sniped his 22nd goal of the season against the Leafs and set up Del Zotto’s goal on a 2-on-1 against the Canadiens, and was arguably the best Canucks forward both nights, but that Boeser sparkled in his first visits to two of the NHL’s most influential markets.

The Calder Trophy, like nearly all the awards decided by Professional Hockey Writers’ Association balloting, generally is determined by arithmetic. The winner is based on statistical dissection by reporters, most of whom focus 90 per cent of their energy and attention on the team they cover and, because most are based in the Eastern time zone, simply don’t see players from the West Coast actually play very often.

Then here comes Boeser to Toronto and the rookie winger leads Canucks forwards in ice time (19:10) and matches Auston Matthews’ night for the Leafs. Then he plays 18:50 the next night in Montreal and leads the Canucks with five shots on goal while getting moved halfway through the game to the Sedin line – you know, so he can get Danny and Hank going.

And in both games, televised nationally, broadcast crews anchored by play-by-play icons Jim Hughson and Bob Cole fairly gushed about Boeser – his ability to find space, release his heavy shot quickly, and make plays with the puck.

The Canucks may have gained only one point on the weekend, but Boeser probably earned a pile of new votes for rookie of the year.

BY THE WAY

Boeser and the Sedins looked pretty good. Of course they did. But we’re not big fans of playing Boeser with the twins, mostly because it concentrates the Canucks’ attack on one line and makes it easier for the opponents to match up.

Boeser is good enough offensively that he’ll get and create scoring chances playing with other capable players, which if nothing else will take the opposition’s best defence pairing away from the Sedins and make it easier for the twins.

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ONE QUESTION

How is it possible for Loui Eriksson to play 19:51 against the Canadiens and remain invisible?

He had only one of the Canucks’ 36 shots and went pointless a sixth straight game. One-quarter through his six-year, $36-million contract, Eriksson hasn’t scored a goal in 16 games and has disappeared since Green detached the Swede from the Sedins a month ago after a couple of quiet games.

There isn’t much the first-year coach has done wrong, but Eriksson’s change in deployment came soon after the Swede’s most productive run as a Canuck: a nine-game spell in which he produced five goals and five assists while skating with the Sedins.

All Eriksson is getting now is ice time. And a lot of money.

DOUBTING THOMAS

Having exceeded all expectations after he was signed to a one-year experiment by the Canucks on Sept. 1, winger Thomas Vanek made another beautiful feed for Boeser to finish in Toronto. But it doesn’t change the reality that the Canucks, partway through a rebuild, absolutely need to trade the 33-year-old if there’s a decent asset to be harvested for him by the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

Even if the Canucks want to re-sign Vanek, his superior play this season (12 goals and 29 points in 42 games) probably prices him out of Vancouver if he wants unrestricted-free-agency market rate on a multi-year contract. Vanek has been an excellent signing. He should help the Canucks when he leaves, too.