VANCOUVER — Near the end of their practice on Tuesday, which followed a day off after an impressive and rare 6-0 road win against the Dallas Stars, Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green challenged his players to do the right thing.
He praised their response for hammering the Stars two nights after a grotesque 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, then asked them how they would respond after a big win.
Wednesday, Green got his answer: as if they were still hungover from winning the Stanley Cup. Except the Canucks didn’t win the Stanley Cup. They jumped on a Dallas team that wasn’t mentally or physically ready to play, lulled into complacency by a matinee game against a Vancouver team falling towards another finish near the bottom of the National Hockey League standings.
The Canucks have never won the Stanley Cup and, at 22-29-6, it seems rather unlikely to occur this spring. But if they ever do win the Cup, they will be forgiven if they show up for a game and wander around the ice with selfie sticks instead of hockey sticks, disregarding their opponents and generally basking in the glory of their championship.
Heck, the West Coast might forgive the Canucks of playing that way for a couple years if they actually brought the first Stanley Cup to Vancouver since the 1915 Millionaires won the beer tureen.
But the Canucks’ unpreparedness Wednesday at Rogers Arena against the Florida Panthers – their response to ending a four-game losing streak in Dallas – was astonishing on a day the organization extended general manager Jim Benning’s contract and talked about the progress being made in rebuilding the team.
The mass shooting at a high school earlier Wednesday in Parkland, Fla., not far from where many of the Panther players live, should make it impossible for anyone to get too worked up over a hockey game. Or any game.
But what the Canucks’ 4-3 loss to the Panthers illustrated is that, at least in the alternate universe that is the NHL, there’s as much work to do on the team culture as its roster.
"It was a great game in Dallas; he did recognize that," Canucks forward Bo Horvat said of Green’s challenge. "And he said it meant we had to come out hard tonight (or Sunday’s win) didn’t mean anything. We have to find a way to be consistent.
"We can’t get too high on ourselves to think we can just come in and lace them up and it’s just going to be another win for us. That’s not how this team works. We have to play hard every single night and we need everybody in the room to win."
In a span of six days, the Canucks managed one of their worst games of the season, one of their best, and something disappointingly in the middle.
The intensity and purpose with which they beat the Stars was absent against the Panthers. The Canucks were reckless with the puck, careless without it and couldn’t get a save from goalie Jacob Markstrom as Florida scored three times in 5½ minutes late in the first period to turn Vancouver’s 2-1 lead into a 4-2 deficit.
Markstrom’s "response" was like his team’s. Superb on Sunday, when he stopped 30 Dallas shots for his second ever NHL shutout, the goalie was beaten three times on six shots during the Panthers’ first-period surge and was replaced by Anders Nilsson.
There was only one of the four Florida goals on which Markstrom didn’t look poor, and ex-Panther defenceman Erik Gudbranson was awful on that one, giving away the puck to ex-Canuck Jared McCann, who set up Alex Petrovic in the slot to break a 2-2 tie at 17:25.
"We didn’t pass the puck well; that’s what got us in trouble," Gudbranson said. "Sometimes you just fight the puck in the first period. We went out there with the right intentions and I think offensively we did OK. We did pick it up in the second and third but it just didn’t work out. We’ve got to come here and play the same way we did in Dallas. We took that game over right from the drop of the puck."
The Canucks actually did some good things in the offensive half of the ice, putting 37 shots on Panthers goalie James Reimer, who looked as shaky as Markstrom early on. But Vancouver was a disaster defensively in the first period, letting Florida forwards get behind the defence, losing puck battles and repeatedly giving away the puck under pressure.
And when it was needed, the Canucks’ power play failed, producing just one goal during 11:52 of advantages – and it came from Brock Boeser during a 5-on-3 advantage in the middle period.
In the third period, down a goal, Vancouver was outshot 14-6.
Horvat had a goal and two assists for the Canucks. Nick Bjugstad scored a goal and added an assist for the Panthers who, after spending the day anxiously following coverage of the horror in and around Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, had every right to be the distracted team on Wednesday night.
"I don’t know if it was one of our best games," Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie said. "But you give credit to the guys, given the circumstances today. I think it goes to show the character in the room. We talked about getting two points and kind of dedicating this win to everybody back home. I wish I was there right now to talk to my family and neighbours and everyone that has obviously been affected by this. But we can’t be there, so the next best thing is come back and win."