VANCOUVER – The biggest surprise of many from the Vancouver Canucks in October was the rate at which they were scoring goals.
With the players they added to those they’d developed, the Canucks figured to be better this season. But nobody thought they’d bombard opponents with at least five goals in half of Vancouver’s first 14 National Hockey League games.
For context, consider that the Canucks completed that feat only 10 times all of last season. This fall, they did it seven times before Nov. 3.
But when the Canucks were beaten 2-1 Sunday afternoon by the New Jersey Devils, it was the fourth time in six contests that Vancouver had failed to count past one on the scoreboard.
The only game they’ve won in that span was the only game the Canucks made it past two goals: a 5-2 win last Saturday against the San Jose Sharks that seemed on Sunday to be much farther away than eight days ago.
As the offence has disappeared, so have the wins. Suddenly, the Canucks have lost four straight games, the last three of them in regulation time, to squander much of the emotional and statistical momentum they generated by starting the season 9-3-2.
“I think we’re still playing pretty well,” winger Josh Leivo said after the Canucks lost for the third time in three-and-a-half days.
“We’ve scored five goals or more in how many games? Now it’s kind of going away from us. We’ve clearly showed that we can score, so we just have to keep believing in each other and keep getting to the net.”
Leivo hasn’t scored in seven games and has one goal in 15. Captain Bo Horvat has no goals in six games and just one even-strength goal this season. And the rebuilt Canucks’ defence, an early responder to the need for offence at the start of the year, has collaborated for one goal in 13 games.
Except for winger Jake Virtanen, no one outside the top line of J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser is scoring much. And in an attempt to help Horvat, Canucks coach Travis Green split Miller from Pettersson and Boeser on Sunday for the first time in a month.
But if you needed to see what a scoring slump looks like, the snapshot was winger Tanner Pearson sitting in his locker stall Sunday afternoon, head down, equipment still on and dripping after most teammates had bolted from the dressing room. Pearson, who had nine goals in 19 games last season after his trade from Pittsburgh, has gone 14 games without a goal while earning only two assists.
“It’s been a while,” Pearson said.
“When frustration creeps into my game, it usually doesn’t go so well, so I’m trying to stay positive. But it’s starting to get to that point. I’m here to help the team win … and I’m not carrying my weight right now. I’m trying not to get frustrated but, at the same time, there’s a tipping point for everything.”
As a team, the Canucks aren’t yet at that tipping point. They’ve banked enough points in the standings to withstand a short drought, and are still generally playing well.
But against the Devils, they followed the blueprint for failure from Friday’s 4-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets by taking back-to-back penalties in the first half of the game, surviving the first disadvantage but not the second, then allowing their opponent to score another quick one at even strength.
The Canucks were better after falling behind 2-0 in the first period, but all they could get past New Jersey goalie Mackenzie Blackwood was Brock Boeser’s power-play laser on a solo rush at 12:40 of the second period. Blackwood has allowed only three goals during four straight wins against the Canucks over two seasons. Vancouver needed to score three on Sunday alone.
The Canucks outshot the Devils 25-16 in the final 40 minutes, but many of their shots were one-and-done. Vancouver didn’t sustain enough net-front pressure to generate second and third chances against Blackwood.
“I think you hit the nail on the head: too many one-and-dones,” Horvat agreed.
“We’ve got to crash the net, get some second opportunities to put the puck in. It is frustrating. You want to score and you want to help your team offensively. Five-on-five, I haven’t been doing a good enough job of scoring goals. We’re creating lots of chances, creating lots of offence. They’ve just got to go in for us.”
Part of the Canucks’ struggle is a market correction. When Miller was asked a couple of weeks ago how he was scoring so regularly, he said: “The puck’s just bouncing in right now.”
Now, for the Canucks, it’s not.
Sunday’s game was also the seventh straight that was preceded by Canuck travel. The team had a three-game trip to California (2-0-1), a single home game last week against the St. Louis Blues (2-1 overtime loss), back-to-back games Thursday and Friday in Chicago and Winnipeg, then Sunday’s matinee to open a four-game homestand in which the Devils were the weakest opponent.
“The schedule is hard. Everybody who plays in the NHL knows it,” Miller said. “It’s part of the gig.
“We need to just find a way to tie that game up. There’s no panic on this team. It’s not like we’re giving up a million chances every game. I think we’re playing pretty well, but I think we have a lot of accountability in this room. Right now, they’re just not going in as often as they were a couple of weeks ago.”
“Legs feel fine,” Horvat insisted. “Where would you rather be on a Sunday afternoon than playing hockey? If you love the game, you want to be at the rink and playing. I think we were ready to go tonight. It’s just a matter of putting the puck in the net.”
It’s no small matter.