VANCOUVER – It is easy to say Travis Green started the wrong goaltender Tuesday but, really, the Vancouver Canucks coach might have started the wrong 18 skaters, too.
The only way that goalie Anders Nilsson could have helped the Canucks win was if he planted his six-foot-six frame in front of the Anaheim Ducks net and sparked Vancouver’s offence, which was as ineffective as the goaltending in a dismal 5-0 loss at Rogers Arena.
No one helped Nilsson, but the struggling backup was maddeningly unable to help himself after Green gave him another, surprising chance in net.
In the Canucks’ first practice after Christmas, last Wednesday, Green was so frustrated with Nilsson at one point that he shouted “just stop the f—–g puck.” Nilsson barked back. Six days later, Nilsson failed again.
It was an odd decision to start him, considering Nilsson’s leakiness the last month and how well starter Jacob Markstrom had played the Canucks’ previous two games: a 5-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks and 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Kings when the goalie may have been Vancouver’s best player.
The Canucks, 2-9-1 now since their National Hockey League season was broken with top centre Bo Horvat’s foot on Dec. 5, are still trying to go with two goalies who have failed them lately.
What they desperately need is just one – anyone – to stop the puck for the next while. Markstrom is by far the better candidate to do that.
His performances in the Canucks’ first two games after the holiday break were the nearest a Vancouver goalie has been to excellent since Markstrom blanked the Carolina Hurricanes 3-0 the night Horvat was injured. That is now four weeks and 12 games ago.
Whether it was Green or goaltending coach Dan Cloutier, someone overthought things when it came to choosing a starter to face the Ducks. As it turned out, both Canucks goalies played as Green hooked Nilsson 20 seconds into the third period when he allowed his fourth goal on Anaheim’s 19th shot.
What made Nilsson’s performance seem even worse is the player he was signed to replace, Ryan Miller, posted a 31-save shutout for the Ducks. The Canucks wanted to keep Miller, but the 37-year-old with the actress-wife wanted to play near his off-season home in Los Angeles and gave the Ducks a sweetheart contract: two years at $2 million.
The Canucks then signed Nilsson from the Buffalo Sabres for two years at $2.5 million.
Fifty-two seconds into his first start since a 7-5 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 19, Nilsson was beaten by Adam Henrique’s centring pass from behind the goal-line that banked in off the goalie’s paddle.
Asked after the morning skate why he was going back to Nilsson, Green said: “Just because we thought it was time to get Nilsson in.”
Why has Nilsson struggled?
“Our team game hasn’t been great in those games,” Green said. “Has he let in a (soft) goal here or there? We’ve talked about that already. I think he’s had some time to reset and had some good practice time. I think it’s time to get him back in the net.”
Since making 43 saves in a 5-2 road win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Nov. 22, Nilsson has stopped only 86.8 per cent of opposition shots while allowing 4.86 goals per game. Injuries and the erosion of the Canucks’ defensive play doesn’t fully explain these ghastly numbers.
“Obviously, as a goalie you’d like to make every save out there,” Nilsson said late Tuesday. “First one was definitely on me. That’s something I would like to have back. As I’ve said before, I’m very critical of myself. I feel almost after every goal that I could have done something else.”
Asked what’s gone wrong the last six weeks, Nilsson said: “I haven’t made as many saves as I would want to. It’s not easy to just pinpoint one or two things or I would definitely have done something about it. It’s a big picture. There’s no shortcuts. The only thing I know I can do is come to the rink every day … and work hard on small details, work hard on the ice, work hard in the gym and I know eventually it’s going to show up in games, too.
“Confidence is coming from yourself, right? It’s a mindset. You can’t change the past. There’s no point in going home and thinking about it too much. The only thing you should put your energy on is what you can do to change it. That’s what I need to do now. Just keep my mindset on what I can do to be a better goalie. The only thing I know is to work hard.”
With the powerful Ducks re-energized and confident after the recent return from long-term injuries of impact centres Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler, the brawny, deep Stanley Cup contenders would have been difficult for the Canucks to beat under any circumstances. Starting from an 0-1 deficit a minute into the game made it nearly impossible for Vancouver.
Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, Antoine Vermette and Derek Grant scored Anaheim’s other goals as the Ducks moved nine points clear of the Canucks in the Pacific Division. Other than Henrique’s bank shot, all the goals came from players unchecked in the slot.
“On a couple of plays there, we hung our goalies out to dry tonight,” defenceman Erik Gudbranson said. “Defensively, we just haven’t been solid enough to win hockey games. We just need to be stronger. It’s hard work to play D. It’s a really tough job. We’ve got to bear down here and start taking pride in it or the season’s going to slip away from us very quickly.”
Like pucks through their goalies.