VANCOUVER — A kick in the crease was followed by a kick in the teeth as the Vancouver Canucks, finally positioned to really dig into the playoff race, opened a six-game homestand with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes.
Having completed three six-game road trips by the middle of the National Hockey League season, and playing more games and road games than everyone except the Vegas Golden Knights, the Canucks are starting a span of six games in 27 days.
All are at Rogers Arena. Five of the games are against teams below the playoff cutoff. And with the exception of super-rookie Elias Pettersson, out day-to-day with a knee injury, the Canucks are healthy. They’re rested, they’re getting quality practice time.
They have no excuses.
And yet they opened Thursday’s game by going 15 1/2 minutes before registering a shot against the Coyotes, who were 5-10-1 the last five weeks.
The Canucks played catch-up all night, rallying three times to tie before losing in OT when Richard Panik, given too much space to speed down right wing, blew an unscreened shot from the top of the faceoff circle past goalie Jacob Markstrom’s stick side.
But the goal that stung more was Coyote Nick Cousins’ go-ahead marker at 10:05 of the second period, when the forward kicked a rebound past Markstrom to cap a counter-attack that began when Canuck Nikolay Goldobin appeared to be tripped on a partial breakaway by Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
To anyone who understands soccer and knows that a kicking motion can be something less than Charlie Brown swinging wildly at a football, there was little doubt Cousins booted it in. The Coyotes forward stared at the referee for the first three strides of his celebration, perhaps in disbelief that neither Dean Morton nor Francis Charron saw anything wrong with his goal. The goal then withstood a review by the NHL war room in Toronto.
“It was a kick,” Markstrom said. “They still don’t have any soccer fans in Toronto, so I don’t know how they can not call that back. It’s happened before and it will happen again. We need to get some soccer fans in (the war room).
“It’s very frustrating. The game goes to overtime and it’s a huge game for us. If that doesn’t go in, nobody knows how the game would have played out. But it’s 3-3 on the board after 60 minutes and one of their goals was kicked in. It’s very frustrating.”
Of course, the war room wasn’t responsible for checking the Canucks into submission in the first period when Vancouver, coming off consecutive shutout losses and with two rest days and two practice days to prepare for the Coyotes, should have come out flying.
And it wasn’t the referees who made Canucks defenceman Chris Tanev misplay the puck into his slot on one Arizona goal, and defenceman Erik Gudbranson fail to block a pass and instead settle the puck for Conor Garland on another.
It wasn’t NHL officials who were briefly confused in overtime when, after Canucks Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser were stopped by Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper on excellent scoring chances, Vancouver was slow to get its defensive shape on the winning goal.
“They usually come with two guys with speed, one on each side,” Canucks defenceman Alex Edler, who couldn’t get across the ice in time to take away Panik’s space, explained. “I gapped up on the other side and then I saw that I needed to get over to his side. He got maybe a little too much room.
“When you lose in overtime it’s never fun. But I think we played pretty good tonight. We talked about it being a pretty tight game and not a lot of room. I think we played hard, but there were a couple of breakdowns that they scored on and those are usually things that decide games.”
Except for the costly defensive breakdowns, the Canucks did play well for the final 44 minutes when they outshot the Coyotes 31-15. But they surrendered four goals on home ice to the third-lowest-scoring team in the NHL and lost for the fourth time in five games (1-3-1) since playing themselves back into the playoff race in the Western Conference.
The most positive aspect of Thursday’s game was that winger Sven Baertschi, who missed two months with a concussion, had two goals and six shots on net in his sixth game back from injury. He looked terrific on a reunited line with Horvat and Boeser.
“There’s always doubt, I think,” he said when asked if he was worried he might never play again. “There’s that uncomfortable feeling that you have and the worry that you have.
“It was a long, hard, weird, interesting process. I learned a lot throughout that two months (to) understand what was happening to me. I just had to deal with it and understand it and be patient with it.”
Rookie Adam Gaudette, back from a three-game stint in the American Hockey League, had the other Canucks goal.
Pettersson missed his second game with a sprained knee, but the Canucks hope their leading scorer might be ready to play Sunday against the Florida Panthers.
It was Panthers defenceman Mike Matheson who body-slammed Pettersson to the ice in Florida in October, causing a concussion that kept the Canuck out of six games and sparked a raging debate on Vancouver’s team toughness. Vancouver is now 3-5-0 without Pettersson, and have scored only 14 goals in those eight games.
Even if Pettersson doesn’t play Sunday, the Canucks are not expected to let Matheson’s visit to Vancouver pass uneventfully. The team could have used a little more emotion at the start of Thursday’s game.