ST. PAUL, Minn. – On a road trip that ended with a three-game losing streak, the Vancouver Canucks’ biggest loss was star centre Elias Pettersson.
The 21-year-old National Hockey League rookie-of-the-year was a game-time scratch Thursday for the Canucks, who immediately surrendered three early goals to the Minnesota Wild before losing 4-2.
The good news is Pettersson, who took the pre-game warmup after fully practising on Wednesday, should be able to play Saturday against the Calgary Flames when the Canucks will be relieved to open a six-game homestand after playing 10 of their last 14 games on the road. Vancouver has won nine straight games at Rogers Arena.
But the Canucks need to clean up more than Pettersson’s bruised knee or leg after surrendering an average of 38 shots during a five-game road trip that soured after an impressive 2-0-1 start.
They were outscored 8-2 in Minnesota and Boston, where Pettersson was hurt Tuesday on a late, unpenalized hit into the boards by Bruins defenceman Matt Grzelyck. Pettersson finished that game but could not start the next one.
“It sucks when a guy like that is injured,” veteran centre Brandon Sutter said. “Petey has shown he can play through pain before and I think tonight was just a little too much discomfort. It’s tough when you know you can’t go, can’t push. Especially for him, we need him fresh here down the stretch. Hopefully it’s just a couple-of-days thing.
“Today you could tell in warmup he just wasn’t feeling it. Hopefully it’s just a short-term thing. At the same time, the guys have to step up and we’ve got to bounce back next game.”
Although the media was surprised when Pettersson was scratched, Canucks players were aware that their leading scorer might be unable to play and should have been mentally prepared to win without him.
But soon after the game started with Adam Gaudette between first-line wingers J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser, who went a 10th-straight game without scoring, the Canucks were down 3-0 to a Wild team that is expected to miss the playoffs again this spring.
Granted, there was an unlucky bounce off Canucks defenceman Alex Edler on Brad Hunt’s opening goal for Minnesota at 6:01, and an uncharacteristic giveaway behind the net by Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom to set up Ryan Hartman’s goal that made it 2-0 at 10:39.
But Canucks penalty killers Miller and Tyler Myers split like opposite sides of the Red Sea to allow Kevin Fiala to make it 3-0 at 16:20, while Vancouver couldn’t get a puck past Minnesota backup goalie Alex Stalock until Miller scored on a terrific solo effort at 10:33 of the second period.
“Believe it or not, I didn’t mind parts of our game,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “You don’t usually say that when you’re down 3-0 after the first period. It felt like we had some good looks and we missed some good chances. I felt like we were unlucky to be down 3-0 after one and if we could chip away, we could find a way to come back and win the game.”
The Canucks dominated the final 10 minutes of the period, but were unable to generate another goal or another power play despite the intense pressure.
The Wild’s Zach Parise and Canucks’ Antoine Roussel traded goals in the third period, the latter one coming with only 91 seconds remaining and Vancouver skating six-against-four while down by three goals.
The momentum the Canucks generated by opening the road trip with resolve and confidence with wins in San Jose and Brooklyn is now gone. Vancouver leads the Pacific Division by two points over the Vegas Golden Knights, but the Canucks’ playoff “cushion” has decreased to six points from 10 this week.
“It was a good start to the road trip,” winger Tanner Pearson said. “Tonight, if we could have won this one it could have turned it into a real good road trip. Obviously, there were a couple of bad bounces. But there was lots of hockey left after one period. We’ve come back from three goals before and were pretty confident. We generated a lot of stuff to the net. But there’s a difference between generating stuff to the net and finishing.”
Final shots were 37-26 for the Wild, but the Canucks had 21 shots blocked and missed the net on 14 other attempts.
“It just didn’t feel like the game was getting away like it looked on the scoreboard,” Sutter said. “In the second we got it to 3-1 and had all those chances to get within a goal. We just couldn’t get that second goal. That would have been a game-changer.”
The Canucks managed just six shots in the third period and are 5-7-0 in games without Pettersson since the Swede arrived in Vancouver at the start of last season.
“You can’t change up your preparation or mindset during games whether someone is going to be in or out,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said. “You’ve just to go and try to win a hockey game, and unfortunately we couldn’t do that tonight.”
With Gaudette in the first line, Sutter moved to the middle of the third line while minor-league callup Zack MacEwen came into the lineup. The Canucks also lost defenceman Oscar Fantenberg with an “upper-body injury.” He may be replaced next game with veteran Jordie Benn, a healthy scratch in 17 of the last 18 games.