With five straight losses after their surprising National Hockey League start, the Canucks may want to assume the crash position. The Canadiens, however, may just be taking flight after the apparent return to top form of all-world goalie Carey Price.
The Anahim Lake, B.C., native stopped 36 of 38 shots against the Canucks, making 18 saves in the third period alone, and has allowed just four goals on 83 shots since returning from a two-game “rest” to work on his craft. The Canadiens, another of the NHL’s early surprises, beat the Calgary Flames 3-2 on Thursday and have won consecutive games for the first time since Oct. 17.
“It’s definitely good to get a couple of bounce-back wins,” Price said after his first-star performance. “It’s always fun to come back to B.C.”
The Canucks would love even one bounce-back win these days. Unfortunately, it’s the mighty Winnipeg Jets who next visit Rogers Arena on Monday.
A handful of key injuries and an absurd schedule that has seen Vancouver complete two six-game trips already and endure 14 road games – no other NHL team had played more than 11 games away from home before Saturday – appears to be collapsing the Canucks.
But the rebuilding team isn’t helping itself either, losing a third-period lead Saturday for the third time in six games. The Canucks surrendered two-goal advantages in Detroit and Buffalo last week but at least left those games with loser points.
They got nothing out of their good effort on Saturday, wasting an especially strong performance from goalie Jacob Markstrom.
Montreal’s lucky tying goal at 11:41 of the third period was a Max Domi pass that bounced in off of teammate Andrew Shaw’s skate. But Jonathan Drouin’s winner, a power-play slapshot past Brendan Gallagher’s screen with just 2:44 remaining, came eight seconds after Canuck defenceman Michael Del Zotto was penalized for a late takeout on Canadiens rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
“I haven’t seen the replay,” Del Zotto said. “My read on the ice is he moves the puck and I finish my check like I do every other play. Whether it’s a borderline play or not, it’s a 2-2 game with two minutes left to play (and) he’s put his whistle away a couple of times. I don’t know how you call that one.”
But Canuck coach Travis Green said of the hard hit: “It was a little late.”
And even if it was a borderline takeout by Del Zotto, the Canucks should have known that referees Brian Pochmara and Graham Skilliter could be looking to penalize Vancouver because it was a soft interference call against Canadien Xavier Ouellet that led to Elias Pettersson’s power-play goal that made it 2-1 for the home team at 10:09 of the final period.
Pettersson, the NHL rookie scoring leader who had gone four games without a point, wired an unstoppable one-timer over Price’s shoulder to break the 1-1 tie.
Del Zotto and Canadien Tomas Tatar traded second-period goals in a game that eventually caught up to the electric atmosphere that the Habs’ visit always generates in Western Canada.
The teams combined for 32 shots in the third period in what was really a goaltending duel between Price and Markstrom, who looked sharper for his one-game layoff on Thursday when minor-league backup Richard Bachman was ventilated in the Canucks’ 6-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild.
The Canucks played well enough on the road to open their six-gamer 4-0-0. Instead, blown leads turned into a pair of shootout losses and contributed to a 1-1-2 record. Vancouver was not in close in its last two road games against the Wild and New York Islanders.
“It’s a bit of a snowball effect right now,” Del Zotto said. “It just feels like before we were winning those close games; now we seem to be losing so many. We’re losing a little bit of confidence. But we’ve got to end this on Monday.”
“We needed that,” Canuck centre Bo Horvat said of Saturday’s game. “There’s no sugar-coating it. We wanted to win that hockey game. When you have the 2-1 lead with 10 minutes left, you’ve got to find a way to get it done. We know it was a tough one (on the tying goal) to go off the guy’s skate and in. But you still have to find a way to get the job done or at least get a point out of it.
“It’s not like we’re playing bad hockey. It’s just a matter of buckling down in the key moments of the games and battling through the injuries we have. We just have to find a way to get the job done.”
Either the Canucks will stop their fall this week, or it will accelerate their descent back towards the bottom of the standings. After the Jets’ game, the Canucks depart yet again for the road, playing three games in four nights in California.
“It’s testing this group,” defenceman Erik Gudbranson said of the losing streak. “That’s what an NHL season does. (But) beating yourself up and throwing your confidence up for grabs is not the right thing to do. We know we’ve got the tools in this room to get out of this. This is when we really start leaning on each other and really start pushing each other. That will bring out the character in all of us.”