VANCOUVER – When he spoke to his players in the second intermission, wondering if they’d forgotten how to skate and pass, Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green admitted to conflicting emotions.
"To be honest, tonight I more or less told them I didn’t know whether to get mad or feel sorry for them (because) the guys were playing that bad," Green admitted. "I just said: ‘We’ve got a chance to win. We haven’t been good tonight. Look in the mirror.’ And give them credit; they did."
Badly outskated, outshot and outplayed Sunday by the Detroit Red Wings through two periods, saved only by Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom, the Canucks scored a pair of opportunistic goals in the third period to win 3-2 and move back into a National Hockey League playoff spot.
With only Wednesday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes remaining before a nine-day schedule break, the Canucks are 3-0-2 in their homestand and two games above NHL-.500 (23-21-6) for the first time since Nov. 15.
Super rookie Elias Pettersson scored Sunday in his return to the lineup after missing five games with a sprained knee, and Vancouver finished the game fully healthy for the first time this season.
The Canucks are a feel-good story.
But they’d feel a lot worse if they were 0-3-2 on this homestand, which wouldn’t be unfair considering how poorly Vancouver has played in the first half of their last three games.
The Red Wings outshot the Canucks 24-12 through 30 minutes on Sunday and easily could have led by more than 2-1 going into the final period. On Friday, the Canucks were outshot 18-8 by the Buffalo Sabres in the first half of a game Vancouver won 4-3. Two nights before that, the Canucks clung to the Edmonton Oilers while being outshot 16-6 and eventually left with one point from a 3-2 shootout loss.
These opponents weren’t titans.
If the Canucks play any worse, maybe they’ll win the Stanley Cup.
"I’ll take the wins," Green said. "I don’t know why we haven’t been sharp. We’re just not sharp, we don’t have a lot of jump at the start of the game. Could the schedule have something to do with it? Maybe.
"Our team hasn’t been used to having days between games, really. Man, we’ve been practising fast and sharp, but we come out the last few games and we just look a little lethargic. It sounds silly; I know that. But as a player, you get in a groove and you’re used to a routine."
Only the Vegas Golden Knights played as many games – and as many on the road – as the Canucks had when they returned to Vancouver on Jan. 6 after their third six-game eastern road trip in three months.
Since then, the Canucks have played just five times in 15 days at home, with plenty of time off and several hard practice days, which were rare in November and December when Vancouver played 24 times in 47 nights.
"We played every second night for three months," winger Antoine Roussel said after deflecting in the winning goal against the Wings with 6:47 remaining. "You kind of lose your rhythm, I feel like. You play one game, two days off. One game, three days off. It feels like you don’t know what to do with yourself on those days off."
This is an incredibly fortunate problem for the Canucks to have: so much time off that they’ve gotten stale while surging up the standings by taking eight of 10 available points on their homestand.
They may have lost their rhythm, but not their mojo. And certainly not their confidence, which is boiling over now that Pettersson and everyone else is healthy.
"I feel like we have that early-season scramble where you’re trying to – not find your role – but get along with everyone you’re playing with," Roussel said of the big, healthy group. "Sometimes it takes time. For most teams, that’s early in the season. But for us, this is the first time everybody is healthy. It’s a good sign we’re still winning, but obviously we have to play better."
Canucks leader Bo Horvat, who had gone 11 games and 41 shots without scoring, tied the game 2-2 at 7:27 of the third period on one of the least-promising scoring chances of his drought.
With his back to the goal, Horvat fooled Red Wings netminder Jonathan Bernier by reaching towards a loose puck and hooking it on target.
"Relief. Excitement," Horvat said. "I’ve had Grade-A chances, open nets, and of course that one goes in right along the ice."
Pettersson’s deflection of Brock Boeser’s point shot gave the Canucks a 1-0 lead before Frans Nielsen’s one-timer and ex-Canuck Thomas Vanek’s conversion of Danny DeKeyser’s slap-pass put the Red Wings ahead in the second period.
"I like our team, like our group," Markstrom said after finishing with 35 saves. "It’s a tight group in the locker room. We play for each other. We can beat any team any night. But we’ve got to be a little better for 60 minutes and have those even performances day in and day out."
The victory moved the Canucks past the Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks and back into the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.
With 32 games to go, are the Canucks watching the standings?
"You kidding me?" Roussel said. "You’ve got to watch the standing and know where you’re at. To know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you’re at. We know exactly where we’re at."
Hopefully, they do.