Canucks hope to prove they have mental toughness to dig out of struggles


Montreal Canadiens' Shea Weber, back right, Joel Armia, back left, of Finland, and Brett Kulak celebrate Weber's goal as Vancouver Canucks' Jordie Benn (4) and Christopher Tanev (8) look on during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Tuesday December 17, 2019. (Darryl Dyck / CP)

VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks’ journey toward respectability is difficult to view from the brace position to which their fans have become accustomed.

There have been so many disillusioning, desolate spells the last four years that the instinctive reaction to a three-game losing streak is to duck, then log onto Twitter before the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling.

This survival technique is entirely understandable given the staggering sum of disappointments amassed over 50 years in the National Hockey League without a Stanley Cup. Even when things are good, that gnawing sense of doom is never too far away, ready to bloom into a mushroom-like toxic cloud when the losing resumes.

The rebuilt Canucks – new-and-improved, nearly everyone thought – began this season 9-3-3 with underlying statistical evidence that it was not a fluke.

And since Nov. 7, when the Canucks swaggered into Chicago unprepared to play and were slapped 5-2 by the old fireless dragon, Vancouver is 7-12-1 and has been outscored 72-56. Separate the power-play goals, and the Canucks are minus-17 in scoring over those 20 games.

Hello darkness, my old friend.

“This year, we feel like we have a group that can get out of tough times,” 10-year Canuck Chris Tanev said Wednesday. “A couple of years ago, maybe in the past, if we had a few injuries and were going through a tough time, it was tough not to dig a deeper hole. But we feel we really do have a really good group here.”

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Now would be a good time to prove it.

After a 1-5-1 dip in November that was partially and reasonably attributed to a critical mass of injuries and games, the Canucks appeared to be excavating themselves from trouble by winning five times in eight contests.

The injured guys were returning and the team started scoring again. The worst seemed over. But Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens was the Canucks’ fourth setback in five games – all in regulation time. And in the only game Vancouver won, 1-0 in OT one week ago against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Canucks surrendered 43 shots and needed a goaltending performance for the ages from Jacob Markstrom.

On Wednesday, radio polls failed to conclusively provide the Canucks a solution. Fans couldn’t decide whether to fire general manager Jim Benning or coach Travis Green, or just do the fair thing and get rid of both.

“It’s tough, especially at this level, with the coverage of media every day,” Markstrom said. “When you’re winning, it’s such a good feeling. And when you’re losing, everybody knows about it. It’s out in the open. You’ve got 18,000 people watching here and a lot more watching it on TV. You can’t hide from it. You’ve got to face it, got to deal with it.

“It’s tough when you haven’t been through it. But that’s why you have 23 guys or 25 guys (on the team), and that’s why you have the coaching staff. We’ve got to help each other deal with it.”

Every experienced Canucks player who was asked Wednesday told Sportsnet that managing emotions is imperative when the team is losing. But most, including Markstrom, also conceded that this mental toughness, focus, is an acquired skill in the NHL.

The Canucks, however, are driven by three players just starting their careers: Elias Pettersson, 21, Brock Boeser, 22, and defenceman Quinn Hughes, 20.

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“Of course, you’re upset when you go through times like this,” Hughes, who was with Team USA at the world juniors this time last year, said one day after logging 28:04 of ice time against the Canadiens.

“At the same time, you’ve got to train your mind when the game is over … to just get ready for the next day. Maybe you fall asleep an hour or two later because you’re disappointed about the game and your head is on it, but you can’t let it affect you.

“You expect so much of yourself, and when things don’t go your way it’s easy to get down on yourself. I’m just trying to stay level-headed. Just stay the same way. That’s something I came into this year trying to work on, and I think I’ve had success with it so far.”

Pettersson is harder on himself than anybody.

“I’ve always been like this,” he said. “I’ve always had a high standard, a high expectation, of myself. That’s always been with me and I feel that’s taken me where I am today. I’m stubborn. I always want to work hard and get better.”

Still gainfully employed ahead of Thursday’s daunting home game against the Vegas Golden Knights, Green said communicating with his young players is crucial at a time like this.

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“Sometimes if you lose, you can get a different feeling for how you played and how you’re doing and how you’re contributing,” he explained. “It’s not just the young guys. I think that goes throughout your whole team.

“When you talk about young players, I don’t think it’s the same for every one of them. Brock probably feels pressure to score right now, but he’s wired a little different than Petey is. Quinn is wired differently than the other two. Individually, if they’re competing and they’re playing well, good things will happen.”

That message also transcends age and experience. Green has been trying to reinforce positive aspects of the Canucks’ play, which saw them outshoot and outchance the San Jose Sharks during Saturday’s 4-2 road loss, and was good enough against the Canadiens to win on a lot of nights. Like nearly any night back in October.

“It’s a different group for sure,” Markstrom said of the team, which spent millions in the summer adding players. “We’ve got new faces and I feel like everybody’s better. You’re playing a good, hard game but you’re losing. Yeah, (the process) is good, but you can only say that so long. It’s about getting points and not losing in regulation. That’s what kills you in the end.”

Asked is he trying to ignore the angry “noise” in the market he is experiencing for the first time, Hughes said: “I’m a hockey player and want to play in a hockey market, so this is perfect.”

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