VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks had a December to remember.
Since the calendar flipped to 2014, it’s been a very unhappy new year.
After compiling a 10-1-2 mark last month that put some distance between the teams chasing them in the Western Conference wildcard race, the Canucks have lost five in a row, including four straight to start January.
The latest setback came Tuesday, when the Pittsburgh Penguins scored twice in the final 1:11 of regulation with their goalie pulled to tie the game before winning 5-4 in a shootout.
All told, the Canucks have given up six goals in five games this season when opponents have their goalie on the bench for an extra attacker.
“Late in games, I always talk about situational play,” Canucks head coach John Tortorella said after Thursday’s practice at Rogers Arena. “Situational play is a mindset and we have not totally grasped that. That’s a mental toughness, to me. I believe you can develop that type of mental toughness — to play in the (hard) areas at certain times, at certain (moments) of games.
“I think at times we’ve done it this year, and obviously of late here, we haven’t.”
Tortorella said the only way to deal with blown leads is to get back on the horse.
“You hope you’re leading again 3-2 in the third period … and you find a way to get it done,” he said. “You need to grasp something.”
Tortorella said that for him, the most fascinating part of coaching is the mind, adding that it’s his job to make sure players learn how to be tough mentally game in and game out.
“I tell the players they’re screwed — if I see it once, I know it’s there,” said Tortorella. “When you show signs you can do it, then you need to demand yourself to do it more consistently. That’s a big part of our responsibility. I’ve seen us play stiff enough to handle situations.
“When you’re developing an identity of a hockey club, it falls on the coach to demand it and keep it there. I’m in it with them as far this little slump here.”
Vancouver’s current losing streak includes road defeats to the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks. The Canucks currently sit in the first wildcard position, but they host the powerhouse St. Louis Blues on Friday before travelling back to Los Angeles and Anaheim as part of a three-game roadtrip.
“The schedule’s not getting any easier,” said Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “We’ve got a lot teams that are ahead of us in the standings that we’re playing. These are the teams we have to beat if we want to catch them.”
Bieksa said the players aren’t dwelling on the late-game collapses, but are instead trying to learn from the mistakes.
“Sometimes maybe we clench up a bit towards the end of the game with the lead because we’ve lost it so many times and it’s in the back of guys’ head,” he said. “You still have to go out there and make a play. It’s not just going back and just hammering pucks around the boards and shooting it out and then they come right back on you.
“Somebody’s got to make a play. Somebody’s got to make a tape-to-tape pass. Somebody’s got to hold onto a puck down low and kill some time. Someone’s got to beat a guy and get a shot on net. It’s just a mindset of continuing to play the same way.”
Apart from blowing leads, the Canucks have also had a miserable time in the shootout this season. Vancouver has a meagre 2-6 record and is a combined 4-for-32 on shootout attempts.
Tortorella had the Canucks practice the shootout for nearly 15 minutes at the end of practice on Thursday, with fourth-liner Zac Dalpe and defenceman Jason Garrison finding a measure of success.
Tortorella downplayed the exercise, saying it’s impossible to mimic game shootout conditions in practice, before sharing what he thought of NHL games being decided by a skills competition.
“It should be out of the league,” he said. “That gimmick should be out of the league.”
Note: Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows and defenceman Alexander Edler were both full participants at Thursday’s practice, but Tortorella said neither has been cleared to play. Burrows has been out with a broken jaw, while Edler has been sidelined by a knee injury.