VANCOUVER – Hours of pre-game time here before the Vancouver Canucks played the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday was filled debating these fun questions: Which team’s core of young stars would you choose? And, as an evolving team, how close was the one from the West Coast to catching up to the one from the centre of Canada?
It’s remarkable how similar the reconstructed Canucks look like the Maple Leafs did a couple of years ago. There are Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Quinn Hughes in Vancouver, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly in Toronto.
On experience alone – not to mention salary – those young Maple Leafs are still ahead of the emerging Canucks.
But the problem with comparing the young guns is that the exercise omitted from the discussion Toronto captain John Tavares, a long-established National Hockey League superstar who is 29 years old and already at the peak of his ability. The Canucks have no one like that.
By the end of Tuesday’s game, this was obvious to everyone.
The Canucks outplayed the Maple Leafs, but had no counter-move to Tavares, who scored two goals and set up another in Toronto’s 4-1 victory at raucous Rogers Arena. Tavares’ five shots on net led the Leafs and his 10 shot attempts were as many as Matthews, Marner and Nylander managed combined.
On the Canucks, Boeser couldn’t score on eight shots, which included a pair of third-period breakaways that Maple Leaf goalie Frederik Andersen stopped – one glove side, one stick side. Horvat also was stuffed on a third-period breakaway, and Pettersson was blanked on four shots that didn’t include two lasers the 21-year-old beamed off the crossbar in the final minutes.
Ex-Maple Leaf Josh Leivo scored Vancouver’s only goal, hacking in a loose puck that Horvat and Tanner Pearson kept alive, to briefly bring the Canucks within a goal at 11:14 of the third period.
None of the Canucks’ best players were close to Tavares.
“We played good enough to win,” Pettersson said. “We had our chances. Brock had chances, I had chances. But it was one of those games, the puck wouldn’t go in.
“Other than five or 10 minutes in the second period, I thought we played a really good game. We were skating, we were working hard and we had chances. I had two crossbars in the third. If I score on my first crossbar, we have a tied game (2-2), so it’s frustrating.”
Here’s something else that’s frustrating, trending towards alarming: Pettersson was held pointless Tuesday for the 12th time in 31 games, and the Canucks are 1-9-2 in those games.
And Vancouver has scored only 16 goals in this dirty dozen. The Canucks are 14-3-2 when Pettersson gets on the scoresheet.
“We had three breakaways in the third and Petey hit two crossbars,” veteran defenceman Chris Tanev lamented. “We threw a lot at the net and it didn’t go in for us tonight.
“It’s a funny game; you win some games you probably don’t deserve to win and I thought we probably deserved a better fate tonight. Tavares scored some big goals; he’s a big-time player (who) comes through in the clutch moments.”
Yes, he does.
The Canucks outshot the Leafs in all three periods and 39-26 for the game. And it wasn’t score effect. Auston Matthews, unchecked between four Canucks when he converted Tavares’ pass to the low slot after a missed shot hit the end boards, didn’t make it 1-0 until 1:45 of the second period.
And that was the game’s only goal until Tavares got free of Hughes to deflect Cody Ceci’s point shot past Canuck goalie Jacob Markstrom with 19.2 seconds remaining in the middle frame. The Canucks spent a lot of time in the Maple Leafs’ zone.
But Andersen was just better than Markstrom, and Tavares was better than everyone else.
“We came in here after the game and Tanev said: ‘That’s the best we’ve played in a while,’” Hughes said. “I agree with him. I lost (Tavares) in the second period there and that was an easy goal for him. And his second goal, I haven’t looked at the tape yet but I’m pretty sure he was wide open in front.
“I need time to digest this. I think we played really good, so keep our heads high and keep playing the same way. But at the same time, see what we can do better defensively.”
Just 3:44 after Leivo scored, three-on-three coverage broke down for the Canucks and Tavares was left open at the edge of the slot with time and space to pick the far post on Markstrom.
The Canucks had at least a half-dozen scoring chances that were as good, but didn’t convert any of them.
“He’s earned every little penny,” Leivo said of his former Toronto teammate. “He’s a workhorse. When I played with him, he was in the gym right away, he’s on the ice early, he’s always working. He’s always on.”
“He’s been so good in this league for a long time,” Pettersson said. “He’s a great player. Showed it today.”
The Canucks are still trying to catch up.