VANCOUVER — With snow on the ground for stretches of the last month, it has been difficult on the West Coast to see that spring is coming. But you can tell it’s on its way because there is again that annual stench of inevitable failure around the Vancouver Canucks.
As surprising as February’s snowfall and mean temperature, the air around the National Hockey League was refreshingly clean until a couple of weeks ago. But the Canucks are dangerously close to reaching that point of the last three seasons when their game smelled like hopelessness, like no matter what they try or do it won’t be enough to save them in the standings.
On Saturday, the Canucks bombarded the best defensive team in the NHL with scoring chances, yet still lost 4-0 to the New York Islanders. One week earlier, they played one of their best games this season, dominating the powerful San Jose Sharks for the middle 40 minutes — on the road, in their third game in four nights, while missing one third of their lineup — and still lost 3-2.
Sandwiched between these spirit-testers, the Canucks after four days of rest failed to show up for the third period against the Arizona Coyotes and lost 3-2 in overtime on Thursday.
They are 2-6-2 since their second injury crisis this season began on Feb. 2, and suddenly Vancouver is five points out of a playoff spot. Five points back with 20 games to go, and with three teams between them and the final wild-card berth in the Western Conference, means the playoff dream is pretty much over.
For 52 games, the Canucks were better than anyone projected last season’s 73-point team to be. But they look headed back to the old neighborhood now.
“It is hard, obviously,” veteran centre Jay Beagle said. “I thought we played well tonight and to not get the results is a tough thing. But it’s a matter of staying positive and building off games like this. You know that if you play like that, the wins start coming. But that was a tough one.”
The Canucks outshot the Islanders 36-23, which was misleading because the game was decided in the first 40 minutes when New York was outshot 30-14.
“We’re grinding right now,” winger Tyler Motte said. “It is hard to stay positive. Now’s the time of the season when you have to get points regardless of how you play. That’s the point of playing hockey right now. Whether it’s the bounces or whatever, you can’t make excuses. You’ve got to find a way to get points. You’ve got to find ways to win games.”
The Islanders have been doing that. If there’s a smell opposite to the Canucks, it’s the Islanders.
Last season, Vancouver finished with 73 points and New York with 80. Then the Canucks added their best player in Elias Pettersson and the Islanders lost their best player in John Tavares. And now look where the teams are.
The Islanders, whose monster acquisitions were general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz, are the NHL’s biggest surprise and angling to be the team that tries to take down the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
And the Canucks, well, they’re better, too. But their late-winter slide down the standings, dragged south by another avalanche of injuries, looks like the last three years.
Until they get top defencemen Alex Edler and Chris Tanev back from injuries, it’s more likely the Canucks will win five of their remaining 20 games instead of the 15 that may be required for entry to the Stanley Cup tournament.
The Canucks were the better team Saturday, but that didn’t matter. The teams look unstoppable in their trajectories, and so the Islanders led 2-0 after 20 minutes despite getting outshot 15-11 and outplayed at even strength.
Islander Casey Cizikas made it 1-0 at 4:48 when Canuck Adam Gaudette deflected Johnny Boychuk’s shot up and into the glass, from which the puck bounced high and soft and landed at Cizikas’ feet beside the Vancouver net.
And Ryan Pulock’s unstoppable one-timer on a lengthy six-on-five doubled the lead at 14:05. It came during a delayed penalty so soft that Canucks coach Travis Green’s glare toward referee Kelly Sutherland made Pettersson’s “death stare” look coquettish.
Beagle had Islanders goalie Robin Lehner beaten on a breakaway deke, but had the puck roll off his stick on the backhand. In the second period, Islanders defenceman Scott Mayfield cleared the puck off the goal-line when it was going in, Canuck Brock Boeser missed a gaping net from the low slot, and Motte chipped another rebound off the post.
And you wonder how a team can go 2-6-2 with six guys out of their lineup?
Eventually, the Islanders just stopped giving the Canucks scoring chances.
When the third period began, New York made it 3-0 at 2:34 by tic-tac-toeing the puck into the net on a three-on-two, Anthony Beauvillier guiding it past Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom. Cal Clutterbuck piled on with an empty-netter.
“It seems like we did everything but put the puck in the net,” Canuck Bo Horvat lamented. “We need to score important goals at this time of the year. I put that on myself and guys in here that do produce for your team. I’ve got to bury those pucks.”
“They’re not all going to go in,” Motte said. “But when the number (of chances) creeps up there, you better find a way to score. You can’t win if you don’t.”