NEW YORK – You could tell from the way the Vancouver Canucks lost Sunday that they’re still learning how to win. Two dreadful bottom-three seasons will drag a National Hockey League team back to school.
The Canucks are showing on this difficult, six-game road trip how much they’ve improved. They’re quicker and deeper, better at defending and getting the puck out of their zone, better at finishing and extending shifts in the offensive end.
They largely dominated the New York Rangers for 35 minutes here Sunday and could have – probably should have – led by more than two goals late in the second period.
But as happened eight nights earlier when the formidable St. Louis Blues surged against the Canucks to erase a two-goal Vancouver lead at Rogers Arena and win 4-3 in overtime, the Canucks were unable to survive the late charge by a Rangers team that had won seven straight games at Madison Square Garden.
Well, the Canucks survived just enough to get one point out of a 4-3 shootout loss to the Rangers. But their tight, efficient game evaporated when New York pressed them into mistakes and, for the second time in five games, the Canucks were unable to close out a game they led by two.
The Canucks were the better team in OT on Sunday, and they twice had the Rangers at match point in the shootout. But after Kevin Shattenkirk, then Rick Nash beat Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom to extend the shootout, Jimmy Vesey won it for New York in the seventh round after the Rangers chose to go last.
Jake Virtanen, who scored for the Canucks in the second period and with nine shot-attempts had one of his best games of the season, was not among coach Travis Green’s seven shooters. Neither was Loui Eriksson, another of Vancouver’s goal-scorers during regulation time.
The tiebreaker was a microcosm for the game: when the Rangers needed a goal, they got it, and when the Canucks needed a save, they didn’t. The Rangers are a good team – they’ve averaged 103 points per season since Alain Vigneault became coach – that knows how to win.
The Canucks were once a good team, and but now are trying to learn how to win again.
“It starts with just playing good hockey,” veteran Sam Gagner, one of eight new players in the Canucks’ lineup, said after the team dipped to 2-1-1 on its trip. “Make sure your details are good and you’ll turn into a better team. Then you’re in a lot tighter games and you find a way to get over that hump. I think we’re pretty close.
“We played well, did a lot of good things. It’s definitely disappointing letting leads slip. It’s one of those you deserve to win, but you’ve got to find a way to do that. We’ll just keep going here. Play that way most times in this league and you win.”
Players said largely the same thing after blowing a 3-1 lead against the Blues.
“For sure, it’s about finding ways to win,” Virtanen added. “When you’re up 2-0, whether it’s not turning pucks over at the blue line or just getting pucks behind (their defencemen) and grinding, those two points are huge in the long run.”
Starting with Jesper Fast’s redirect at 17:40 of the second period, the Rangers scored three times in a span of 7:25. They barely generated three scoring chances in the first 28 minutes while the Canucks took a 2-0 lead on goals Eriksson and Virtanen.
Vancouver twice blew leads in the third period.
Markstrom botched Michael Grabner’s wrist shot from a sharp angle just 19 seconds into the final frame. And, after Gagner responded from the slot 41 seconds later to restore the Canucks’ lead, Vesey tied it 3-3 at 5:05 after a series of Canuck mistakes: Troy Stecher’s giveaway up ice, Eriksson’s poor position while filling in for Stecher, and Markstrom’s overly aggressive push across towards Vesey on a 2-on-1.
It is important to note, however, that the Canucks still outshot the Rangers 14-9 in the third period and overtime. Daniel Sedin had two chances to win it for the Canucks, while Brendan Gaunce, goalless his last 83 games, was stopped from the slot by Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist late in the third.
“I’m not disappointed with the game,” Green said. “We played well tonight against a real good hockey team.
“We come into Madison Square Garden and hold a team like that to 20 shots? You’re not going to hear me complain about a lot of things. I would have liked to have won the game, but you’ve got to be honest with your game.”
Vigneault, the former Canucks coach, was honest about the Rangers’ game.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “what I can say about today’s game is sometimes good teams find ways to win games when they don’t play their best. That was definitely the case today.”
And teams trying to be good will lose sometimes as they’re learning to win.