SUNRISE, Fla. – Which is worse: getting stunned by a 9-2 loss or failing to respond to it while losing 5-2 the next game?
The Canucks arrived in Florida a day early to practise and see how they could extend a seven-game winning streak. They left late Friday with a two-game losing streak and another round of questions about their wildly unpredictable season.
The Florida Panthers scored on their first two shots – and generated 47 more – before coasting to a 5-2 win Thursday against the Canucks, who were supposed to be inspired by their 9-2 embarrassment Tuesday in Tampa to be a stronger, sharper team.
Instead, the Canucks surrendered another freight train of scoring chances, many of them on outnumbered rushes, and really didn’t give themselves much chance to win against the Panthers.
In a state-of-the-union press briefing with reporters during the first intermission, Canucks general manager Jim Benning said of his evolving team: “When you have young players. . . it’s (about) the night-to-night consistency they show up and play with. Sometimes you never know, right? I think our young players are exciting offensively. Even when we get down, we seem to find a way back into the game. But if we’re going to take the next step as a team and be consistent, we’ve got to tighten up defensively and play tighter hockey.”
Benning is not a prophet. He has simply paid attention.
The Canucks’ winning streak was great. It got them back in the playoff race. But it masked an ongoing problem of risk mismanagement, turnovers that catch Vancouver players out of position and put unholy pressure on their goaltenders.
Vancouver is tied for third-worst in the NHL with an average of 33.1 shots against per game. In the last six games, the average has climbed to an alarming 38.8. On Thursday, the Panthers outshot the Canucks 49-32, and during the 26 minutes leading into the second intermission, the disparity was 28-8.
Nobody can win that way. Sure, Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko have performed a few miracles this season, but winning is impossible long-term with defending that loose.
“I don’t think we want to take away from anyone’s skill in here,” grinder Tyler Motte said. “As you mentioned, a lot of talent, a lot of guys who have a knack for scoring goals and skill in the offensive zone. So I don’t think we want to take away from that. But as a group, we need to take care of the puck, especially on entries and through the neutral zone. That allows us to get to our game and allows guys to utilize their skills in the offensive zone.”
“We have to be better with the puck,” Canuck captain Bo Horvat said. “Knowing when to pinch, when not to pinch, and when to make a play, myself included.”
Demko, a somewhat surprise starter ahead of Markstrom, said: “You guys have seen it, we’ve seen it; our team can play a winning style. We have that in our dressing room. We’ve just got to get back to it.”
The style is fast and direct and physical. It’s about getting the puck safely out of their zone and into the other team’s end, where the Canucks can use their size and strength and skill up front to punish opponents. Their goaltending needs to be good, their power play excellent.
Since the puck can be in only one end at a time, that offensive-zone time in itself means fewer shots and scoring chances against.
In the first quarter of the season, the Canucks allowed 40 shots – and only 40 shots – just once. In 22 games since then, that threshold has been breached eight times by opponents, and Thursday’s loss was the fourth time Vancouver has yielded at least 46 shots.
“You want your team to be consistent, and that’s something that’s not always easy when you’re young,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “You’re going to have some ups and downs and teaching moments along the way with a young group. Certain teams are a little more fragile than others. When you have young players, that’s part of it as well.”
The Panthers had two goals before Demko had a save.
Rookie Quinn Hughes’ pass from behind his own net ricocheted off a Panther skate and straight into the slot to Noel Acciari, who beat Demko short-side one minute into the game. Mark Pysyk’s shot squeezed under Demko at 3:01 after Elias Pettersson, filling in at the point for defenceman Tyler Myers, was a step-slow on the backcheck.
Brock Boeser cut the deficit in half with a deflection at 6:51, and the Canucks outshot the Panthers 13-8 through 14 minutes. But Evgeni Dadonov scored a killer goal for Florida at 18:53 after Canucks defenceman Troy Stecher pinched and forward Tim Schaller, filling in for him, was flat-footed as the Panthers countered.
When Jonathan Huberdeau stickhandled Chris Tanev to the ice to tee up a power-play one-timer for Mike Hoffman at 3:41 of the second period, Vancouver had been outscored 11-1 by the Lightning and Panthers over a stretch of 49 minutes.
“Not a great start,” Motte said. “But I thought we got back to our game a little bit in the first period. We continued to kick ourselves a little bit giving up odd-man rushes. It’s not really a recipe for success. Especially on the road, our identity has got to be making them come 200 feet and generating some O-zone time so we’re not getting in a track meet out there. We’ve kicked ourselves the last couple here, and we’ve got to deal with it internally.
“Coming off a loss like we had in Tampa, I think we wanted definitely an all-around better effort tonight.”