LAS VEGAS – So this is what elimination looks like: a Vancouver Canucks team desperate to cling to the vapour trails of the playoff race losing 3-0 Sunday to the Vegas Golden Knights while getting outshot 48-19.
Were it not for goalie Jacob Markstrom, the Canucks would have lost by a touchdown. But Markstrom’s miracles were still not enough as Vancouver ended a three-game “must-win” road trip, in which they’d hoped to rescue their National Hockey League playoff hopes, with one point from three games and its most disillusioning performance of the season in the finale.
“We looked overwhelmed,” Canucks coach Travis Green conceded. “We were not very good. We couldn’t handle them. That’s what happens when you get a team that’s a Stanley Cup contender (against) a team that didn’t play well.
“I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in our game tonight. I know our team is. I don’t say that a lot, but tonight we were bad, and we’re going to have to be better.”
Rare among the first 38 games the Canucks lost this season was a night when you could fault the team’s effort or willingness to compete. Including overtime and shootouts, 20 of their losses have been by a goal. Often, the Canucks aren’t good enough. Almost never do they not battle.
But you couldn’t even say they quit on Sunday’s game because that implies that they actually started it. In reality, with 2 ½ days in Las Vegas to prepare, the Canucks never showed up.
Vancouver started badly and got worse. They played like they had the Vegas flu.
Seven points adrift of the final wildcard spot, they are as near to last place in the Western Conference as they are to the playoffs. The Canucks are 3-7-3 the last four weeks and return home to face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday after their first winless road trip this season.
“The way I see it is we’re in the fire right now,” veteran centre Jay Beagle said. “And so, you either let that fire refine you and you come out a better player and a better team on top, or you let it burn you. We have to let this make us better. We have to build when you’re going through things like this.
“This is a hard stretch. This has been tough. We have not played good enough, especially for poor Marky. I mean, it’s hard to watch and be a part of. So we have to be better and we have continue to work on our game as individuals and as a team and let this make us better.”
Beagle said he doesn’t believe the growing gap between the Canucks and the final playoff spot has weakened players’ resolve or is starting to affect performance.
“This was tough,” he said. “I have to be better, have to compete harder. Things aren’t going easy for us right now; that’s no secret. Over the last 10 games, things haven’t been easy. When a stretch like that happens, you have to dig deep – myself included – and you have to be better. Let it make you into a better player and a better team instead of letting it break you. We have to really help Marky out. We can’t rely on him like that. We’ve done that a lot the past 10 games here, and it’s not right.”
Markstrom made 45 saves, two more that he was forced to make Wednesday in Colorado where the Canucks lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Avalanche. He has faced 37 or more shots in five of his last nine starts and only four times in his last 15 games has handled fewer than 30.
“Today wasn’t good,” Markstrom said. “From the start, they hemmed us in our zone and we weren’t good enough.”
Max Pacioretty, Ryan Carpenter and Reilly Smith scored for the Golden Knights, who are 4-0 since they acquired Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators and look suddenly again like the big, fast, deep, attacking team that made it to the Stanley Cup final in their first season.
Green lauded the Knights and their top players.
“You’re watching a team that our young guys can watch (and) right throughout their lineup, they work,” the Canuck coach said. “Even their skilled guys, they’re strong on the puck, they want the puck, they want to be in the battle, they want to block shots, they want to do whatever it takes to win.”
Earlier, Green said: “You’ve got to want the puck in this kind of game. I thought we had some guys that weren’t hungry enough, to be honest.”
It is easy to read into these comments a challenge by Green to the young Canucks who have been driving the team this season but have suddenly disappeared.
The Canucks were outshot 15-2 in the first two periods when Brock Boeser was on the ice, and Green demoted his sophomore winger in the third period. Calder Trophy favourite Elias Pettersson has been pointless in five of his last six games. Centre Bo Horvat, who is 23, has five goals and one assist during the Canucks’ 13-game collapse and on Sunday was personally outshot 16-4 at even strength.
And the young defence pairing of Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher, so impressive recently when forced by injuries to play more, were dominated by the Knights.
“They’re young guys,” Green said. “It’s not going to be a cakewalk for them all the time.”
Sunday, the Knights made them walk the plank.