Canucks can’t match crowd’s energy as fans finally return for home opener

Matt Dumba scored the winner as the Minnesota Wild held on to beat the Vancouver Canucks 3-2.

VANCOUVER — It was a great night, a victory for everyone except the Vancouver Canucks.

In their home opener, the Canucks gave people a mile-marker in the battle to triumph over the global pandemic, filling Rogers Arena with screaming fans for the first time since COVID-19 began to batter the world 19 months ago.

The crowd of 18,870 was a reflection of that ongoing recovery, another glimmer of hope that perhaps the worst is behind us.

As Vancouver coach Travis Green said after Tuesday’s morning skate: “There’s been a lot of change since the last time the fans have been in the building. The fans have missed a lot. Really tonight, never mind the game and that part, it’s having the fans back and playing in Canada. It’s so important, I think, just welcoming them back.

“You can’t describe (what it’s like to) play or to coach in a Canadian market, in a Vancouver market, that is so passionate. As much as some days we joke or we’re (a) little snarly in this (interview) room, you never take it for granted. It’s amazing to play and to coach in Canada.”

The Canucks welcomed fans back with a slick and stirring pre-game video, featuring Elias Pettersson as a Jedi.

But the force in the crowd never quite transferred to the Canucks, who chased the game from the start and lost 3-2 to the fast and impressive Minnesota Wild.

Vancouver fell behind less than eight minutes into the game and never caught up. They couldn’t catch the Wild on the scoreboard or on the ice as Minnesota was just quicker, sharper, more physical, more relentless.

Canuck legs were moving, but the players weren’t getting there fast enough. Whether it was the emotions of playing in front of a crowd capped only by seating capacity for the first time since March 10, 2020, or the consequences of opening the season with a six-game road odyssey, the Canucks struggled to match the energy in the building.

“That was probably one of the harder teams that we’ve played so far,” Vancouver captain Bo Horvat said. “Just their back pressure and their recovery game, and they’re kind of all over you, all on top of you all the time, it’s tough to make plays five-on-five out there.

“That’s kind of what we want our identity to be: hard to play against, really sound defensively and giving teams no time and space. That’s exactly kind of been that team’s identity for a long time now. We know what it’s going to be like every single night when we play them, and we have to have that identity for our team where we know when teams are coming into Rogers Arena, it’s going to be a tough night. I think we still have to find that a little bit.”

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Horvat noted that turnovers — rookie Jack Rathbone’s giveaway in his own zone led directly to Jonas Brodin’s unassisted second-period goal – hurt the Canucks.

But so, too, did the ongoing struggle of their top forwards, especially Pettersson.

After conceding on Sportsnet 650 radio in the morning that he spent too much time before last season focusing on building his brand on social media — due to quarantine requirements, the 22-year-old never went home to Sweden that off-season and was separated from his family for nearly a year — there was nothing wrong with Pettersson’s focus against the Wild.

But nearly everything else was off. The puck continued to bounce away from him, he missed passes and was often outmuscled.

After missing all of training camp and most of the pre-season due to a contract impasse, Pettersson has one even-strength point in seven games. He made a nice pass on the power play to set up Alex Chiasson’s goal that cut a 2-0 deficit in half at 10:46 of the second period, but finished with just two shots on net. During his 17:14 of even-strength play, the Canucks were outshot 6-1.

First-line winger Brock Boeser, whose start to the regular season was delayed by injury, has one even-strength point in four games. And on Tuesday, catalyst forward J.T. Miller went shotless for a second straight game for the first time in two years.

Top defenceman Quinn Hughes also failed to register a shot, missing the target twice in the final minute after Horvat’s brave goal — scoring on a backhand while crashing into the net on a partial breakaway — lifted the Canucks within one with 4:07 to play. At even strength, the Canucks were outshot 13-8 when Hughes was on the ice.

The difference in Tuesday’s game, compared to some of the recent road games, is that buzzsaw forwards Conor Garland and Nils Hoglander were unable to fill the void at the top of the lineup and pull the Canucks with them.

Vancouver was outshot 30-24 and managed to test Minnesota goalie Cam Talbot only five times in the third period.

Now 3-3-1 through seven games despite the lack of impact from a couple of their best forwards, the Canucks have six more games on this homestand — and more refining to do to their systems play.

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“It was just really refreshing to see everybody in the building,” Horvat said. “It was a really exciting night. It was awesome to see. When we gave them something to cheer about, they were cheering loud. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get them the win tonight which they deserved.”

NOTES: Canuck defenceman Tucker Poolman left the game in the second period due to an undisclosed injury. Just hours earlier, general manager Jim Benning issued a statement that defenceman Travis Hamonic, absent since training camp while on a personal league, would be joining the Canucks’ minor-league team in nearby Abbotsford. Poolman has been playing elevated minutes on the right side of Vancouver defence due to Hamonic’s absence.

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