VANCOUVER – Bad teams make bad plays at bad times.
Does this make the Vancouver Canucks a bad team?
That blunt assessment seems harsh considering the Canucks are just beginning to emerge from a painful rebuild and have some excellent young players who should get much better with time.
But the bad-plays-at-bad-times part is indisputable. It was on display again Saturday when the Canucks, who are 1-9-2 since Nov. 8, turned a third-period lead into a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars.
Two nights after some shockingly soft play allowed the Vegas Golden Knights to beat them 4-3 on a late short-handed goal, the Canucks surrendered the Stars a winner with 3:23 remaining when Vancouver failed to box out on what should have been a defensive-zone faceoff win.
Markus Granlund couldn’t get the puck out along the boards against Jamie Benn, who centred to unchecked Alexander Radulov in front of the Vancouver net. Radulov, open because Canucks defenceman Michael Del Zotto had started to move forward in anticipation of Granlund making a play, beat goalie Anders Nilsson with a deft backhand and Vancouver lost for the 11th time in 12 games.
Seven of the losses have been by a solo goal, and the Canucks have left a staggering amount of points on the table. They’ve had two-goal leads and lost, surrendered late winning goals and generally managed to get nothing out of games even in the few they were the better team.
Their defensive play has improved dramatically the last five games, and yet they are 1-3-1 in those.
Top winger Brock Boeser and No. 1 defenceman Alex Edler have returned from injuries, and still the Canucks lose.
“We can’t find a way to just get one over the line,” veteran forward Sam Gagner lamented. “It’s definitely frustrating, but we’ve got to learn from it. The mental game is a huge part of it. It’s really important to just do your best to believe in the process and believe that if you do the right things, it will work out. You get yourself in trouble when you start thinking negatively.”
But that is almost impossible to avoid these days.
They led Dallas 1-0 after 50 minutes on Bo Horvat’s first-period goal from ex-Star Antoine Roussel’s bounce pass on a counter-attack.
But when Benn tied it at 10:19 of the third period, appearing from behind the net to sweep in a loose puck after Miro Heiskanen’s point shot into traffic bounced away from Nilsson, it felt like another Dallas goal was coming. It took six minutes.
With the Canucks’ net empty in the final minute, Boeser launched a wrist shot off the crossbar. He was also stuffed by Stars’ goalie Ben Bishop on a second-period breakaway.
“I wanted to go five-hole but he read me like a book,” Boeser said. “A play like that goes through my head a lot after games. I’ll be thinking about it.”
Nilsson said: “Losing the game in the last 10 minutes is tough. We played a pretty good game but we made some mistakes and in the third it cost us.”
With one win in 23 days, are the Canucks thinking about losing again when the game is close?
“I hope not,” Nilsson said. “It’s easy to say no, but of course when you get a lot of losses in a row. . . it can creep in the back of your head. It shouldn’t do that. Overall, I think we played a pretty good game but we made a few mistakes that, unfortunately, they were able to score on.”
The Canucks play the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday and the Nashville Predators visit Rogers Arena on Thursday, before Vancouver departs for another three-game trip that will push their league-leading total of road games to 20.
Winning isn’t going to get any easier.
“When things aren’t going well, you have to commit to 60 minutes of hockey,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “We cheated and turn it over when the heat was on. Some young guys might be a little nervous, we lost a couple puck battles against their big line, and that was the difference.
Roussel said: “We’ve got to go at it, face the challenge and rise up. We can’t just go out there and hope for better, you know? We’ve been cracking a little bit after 55 minutes and that hurts. We’re a young team, but you’ve got to learn quick in this league or sometimes you get tossed away and change comes in quick. Everybody’s got to learn that. We’ve really got to get our shit together and win some games.”