VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks hit the National Hockey League quarter-pole on Thursday, but it feels more like the quarter-pole hit them.
The Canucks climbed back from a two-goal deficit only to surrender two more goals on turnovers as the Dallas Stars beat Vancouver 4-2 at Rogers Arena.
The Stars, 9-1-1 in 11 games since a 1-7-1 start, are as hot now as the Canucks used to be. The heat from Vancouver’s sizzling October has cooled. At 10-7-3 through 20 games, the Canucks still lead the Stars by a point in the Western Conference standings but it seems the teams are speeding in opposite directions.
The Canucks are 1-4-1 in their last six games and failed Thursday to build momentum after Tuesday’s 5-3 win against the Nashville Predators. That was the only game of the six in which Vancouver managed to score more than twice.
Beyond the offence, which was unsustainable from its October levels, there are a couple of other disconcerting trends.
Starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, who has dealt with the emotional agony of his father’s terminal illness and subsequent death from cancer on the weekend, allowed four goals on 29 shots Thursday and has posted an .895 save percentage in his last six starts. And injuries at the bottom half of the lineup seem to be reaching a critical mass.
Coach Travis Green admitted Thursday that the absence of third- and fourth-line centres Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle, both big, experienced players who excel on the penalty kill and in defensive situations, was felt against the “heavier” Stars.
Still, the Canucks were within a goal of Dallas with three minutes remaining and continue to play hard and stay competitive. And those 23 points from 20 games project to a 94-point season, which would put them in the frenzy of the playoff race in April.
“You’re catching me on a night when we lose a hockey game,” Green said when asked post-game for a snap assessment of the Canucks’ first quarter. “If you catch me after the Nashville game, I’d probably be a little more optimistic, I guess. I think our team has played well.
“If you go over 20 games, man, there hasn’t been many games that we didn’t play a good hockey game. We’re going to learn some things as we go, though. Tonight was one of those games. A heavier team came in and played a good road game. Our team is learning as it goes. Overall, after 20 games, I guess I’m pretty happy with how our team has played.”
Defenceman Troy Stecher summarized: “We work hard. I think we prove that every game we’re going to compete and battle. We’re trying to make it tough for other teams to play against (us). We pride ourselves son our speed and playing direct. This is Year 4 for me now (in the NHL) and I kind of feel that pre-season is one level, up until Christmas is different, and then it keeps ramping up.
“We’ve definitely got to continue to improve. We need to be better as a group.”
They needed to be better Thursday at winning and managing the puck.
The physical Stars defend ferociously and feed off mistakes to score goals. Green said the Canucks didn’t win enough battles and didn’t take care of the puck.
The game-clinching goal by Alex Radulov on a two-on-one with 2:36 remaining came after top Canuck defenceman Alex Edler turned over the puck in the neutral zone and then followed his bad pass and was caught.
Tyler Seguin’s tap-in broke the 2-2 tie at 18:29 of the second period when Canuck Bo Horvat let Dallas defenceman Miro Heiskanen step in front of him on a counter-attack after Jordie Benn’s shot was blocked inside the Stars’ blue line.
“When you turn the puck over, you’re going to give up rush chances,” Green said. “That’s what happens in the league, and they’re good at it.
“I thought we turned the puck over a few times that cost us. And I thought they won a few more puck battles than we did. They’re a heavy team. They know how to defend hard. You’ve got to skate, you’ve got to play direct, and you can’t turn the puck over against them or they’ll go the other way in a hurry.
“I don’t think we had a lot of guys that were great tonight.”
Seguin’s goal was a disappointing end to a strong middle period for the Canucks, who began their comeback at 5:21 on Jake Virtanen’s rebound goal, and tied it 2-2 at 11:30 when Stecher’s wrister from the point dipped through a dense thicket of players and past Stars’ goalie Anton Khudobin.
Riding an 8-1-1 wave in the standings, Dallas took a 1-0 lead 3:45 after the opening faceoff when Justin Dowling skated past Canuck defenceman Tyler Myers, took a pass from Seguin and badly fooled Markstrom with a drag move.
The goalie then allowed a chipped backhand from Blake Comeau to trickle through him at 4:03 of the second period after the Dallas forward had embarrassed Stecher with an outside-inside move at speed.
“Anytime you get walked that bad, you just want to hide almost,” Stecher said. “Moreso, I felt bad for the team. You put them in a tough spot when you do down like that. To get it back, it felt good.”
Stecher was referring to his tying goal — the last one of the night for the struggling Canucks.
“It felt like we had a pretty solid game,” Virtanen said. “We had the pressure on them and they get that last one late. We could have made a couple of smarter plays.”
• Green said after the morning skate that Sutter, who left the Nashville game with a groin injury, will miss at least a week, then be re-evaluated. Beagle missed his second straight game with an undisclosed injury. Rugged forwards Tyler Motte (foot) and Micheal Ferland (concussion) are also out.