WINNIPEG – The Vancouver Canucks stopped one period before their road trip did.
After winning more games than anyone thought possible and learning a lot about themselves during nearly two weeks on the National Hockey League road, the Canucks ran into a heavy, talented, overpowering reality check in the third period on Thursday. This is what a Stanley Cup favourite looks like.
The Winnipeg Jets executed on their power play like they were playing video games and pumped in three third-period goals to beat the Canucks 4-1. At least before Vancouver’s six-game trip, the Canucks and Jets were believed to be at opposite ends of the NHL’s competitive spectrum.
But for 43 minutes, after consecutive Vancouver wins in Tampa, Florida and Pittsburgh, after 17 periods over 12 nights, the Canucks were right there with the Jets. And then they weren’t.
“We cracked, basically,” Canucks winger Antoine Roussel said. “That’s a pretty good road trip, but it sucks for the end of the game in this one. We could easily be 4-2 to be honest with you. I’m very disappointed with our third period. We gave a lot in the second period. We worked hard, we were on pucks. I thought we had our best second period I’ve seen maybe the whole season. Then we just let go of the rope.
“We compete against a great team, a team that’s a (Stanley Cup) contender. So that’s encouraging for us. At the same time, we can’t piss away efforts like that when we’re so close.”
Starting with Bryan Little’s power-play backhander at 4:58 of the third period, after the Jets centre sliced through the Canucks zone and turned defenceman Chris Tanev, the Jets scored three times in 10 minutes to win it going away.
The Canucks simply looked overmatched in their own zone when Andrew Copp beat Erik Gudbranson to the front of the net to swat in a loose puck and make it 3-1 at 12:46, and Little found Dustin Byfuglien for a tap-in at 14:43.
“That third period, we had that hunger out there and it didn’t stop,” Little said. “We kept pushing and that’s why we got rewarded with more goals.”
Having blown a three-goal lead at home to lose 5-4 in overtime to the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday, the Jets exerted their will on the Canucks in the final period Thursday. They are 4-2-1 through seven games – just one point ahead of 4-3-0 Vancouver.
The Canucks went 3-3 on a road trip in which, honestly, the over/under on them for wins would have been about 1.5. And when Vancouver lost 5-3 two Tuesdays ago in Carolina to start the trip 0-2, it was was reasonable to wonder if they’d win any games.
Then they swept Florida State for the first time since 2002 and, after leading scorer Elias Pettersson suffered a concussion on Saturday, went into Pittsburgh and beat the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin Penguins 3-2 in overtime on Tuesday.
The Canucks gained a lot of confidence on this trip. They came as far figuratively and they did literally.
“I think every game we were ready to go,” veteran Brandon Sutter said. “Going into Tampa and Florida and winning both those games, then we went into Pittsburgh and right from the start of the game we were ready and were with them step for step. Those are three really good teams. Even tonight, we were with them for 50 minutes and it kind of got away from us in the last 10.
“I liked our effort all the way through. First long road trip of the year is always a big one. We learned a lot about ourselves. When we’re doing the right things, we can play with anyone. We kind of showed that.”
Gudbranson said: “Our compete level and our will to win really was not the thing that wavered here. Especially through this road trip, I think a lot of guys learned how committed the guy to the left and right of him is. It didn’t finish the way we (wanted) but I think we should keep our heads held high.”
Actually, they better keep their heads down and keep working because they play the Boston Bruins Saturday at Rogers Arena in a game that, travel-wise, is like another roadie, before the Stanley Cup-champion Washington Capitals visit Vancouver on Monday. Then, the Canucks depart again for back-to-back road games against the Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes.
Bo Horvat scored the only Canucks’ goal Thursday, beating defenceman Jacob Trouba one-on-one and chipping the puck past Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck to tie it 1-1 at 12:54 of the second period. Blake Wheeler saucered a pass through two defenders and one teammate to tee up Patrik Laine’s power-play one-timer for Winnipeg at 18:56 of the first period.
Missing Pettersson – the 19-year-old is making encouraging progress in his recovery from Florida defenceman Mike Matheson’s illegal body-slam – the Canucks scored fewer than three goals for the first time this season. And goalie Anders Nilsson, beaten four times on 32 shots, lost for the first time in four games since replacing Jacob Markstrom in net.
“Sometimes momentum is hard to explain,” Roussel said. “But I felt we could have pushed harder. We’ve got to learn from it. We can not have too many games where we’re so close and … we let go (of) the rope.”