Canucks are ticked off and looking for redemption against Blackhawks

Bo Horvat talks with the media about the Vancouver Canucks needing to redeem themselves after a loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

CHICAGO – Well, that escalated in a hurry.

Here we are, Game 5 of an 82-game season, and the Vancouver Canucks are already facing a referendum on their competitiveness and evolving culture Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks.

They don’t have to win, but they sure as heck better compete after Tuesday’s third-period collapse and general no-show in a 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

Halford & Brough in the Morning
Dan Murphy on Canucks effort in Buffalo, Quinn Hughes and taking on the Blackhawks
October 21 2021

After a solid 1-1-1 start on the road, when the Canucks outshot opponents overall and displayed improvements in their team game, the Blunder in Buffalo rekindled disconcerting memories of last season and Vancouver’s free-fall toward the bottom of the National Hockey League standings.

Canucks coach Travis Green blasted his team afterward, then stoked the competitiveness in Wednesday’s practice here by making each drill punitive for the losing side, which did extra skating.

If Tuesday’s game had happened in mid-January, after the Canucks had established themselves as better than last season, you’d move on. Stuff happens. But tonight is the start of Week 2 to a season when the team is expected to be – must be – better than it was, and Tuesday’s loss raised considerable panic among a fanbase that has enjoyed one incredible month of playoff success in the last decade.

So, yeah, tonight against the Blackhawks feels like a little more than Game 5 in October.

“I think you can feel that there’s a little bit of an air of intensity around the room right now,” centre  Jason Dickinson said after Wednesday’s practice, which satisfied Green enough that the coach cancelled Thursday’s morning skate. “A lot of guys are pissed off, I think, with themselves. And that’s where it should be right now: look at yourself first and take care of that, and then everything else will be all right.”

There are several facets of the Canucks’ game that haven’t been all right.

Star defenceman Quinn Hughes, who missed training camp and most of the pre-season awaiting a new contract, was injured in Saturday’s 3-1 loss in Detroit (the Canucks outshot the Red Wings 41-21) and practised neither Monday nor Wednesday. He is expected to miss his second game tonight.

Forwards from the top two lines, which are supposed to be Vancouver’s strength, are collectively struggling. There is a seven-way tie among forwards for the goal-scoring lead at one, and most in the top nine are underwater at even strength. Top forward Elias Pettersson, who kept Hughes company during their contract impasses, has one goal, one assist and a shooting percentage of 6.7 through four games.

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Cold the last two games, the power play has sunk to the middle of the NHL pack at 20 per cent, which wouldn’t be too debilitating except the penalty killing, long a problem for the Canucks, is 27th, at a 70-per-cent success rate – or 30-per-cent failure rate.

And the Canucks can’t win a face-off. They’re last in the league at 41.4 per cent – an astounding 11-point decline from last season, when Vancouver was fifth in the NHL. Sure, they traded Jay Beagle and lost Brandon Sutter to long-haul COVID symptoms, but what has happened to J.T. Miller (39.5%, down from 53)?

But none of this stuff is as important tonight as the core issues of intensity and engagement and competitiveness. Are the Canucks going to be this bad again or are they better than last year?

Of course, the 0-3-1 Blackhawks are facing the same troubling questions, booed off the ice at the United Center after Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders in Chicago’s home opener.

“We were soft,” Dickinson said of the Buffalo game. “There wasn’t enough intensity. We’ve got to play a little bit more gritty and physical and direct, play our game and be successful.

“You’ve got to create a culture of hard work and dedication. One game is fine. It’s not acceptable, but it (happens). It’s how we respond to the next one.”

The referendum begins at 7:30 p.m. Central time.

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