VANCOUVER — It was a single point and a moral victory, and maybe last year that would have been enough for the Vancouver Canucks.
But having shown in the first quarter of this National Hockey League season that they are a better team than they were last year – and better than anyone expected – the Canucks viewed Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues as a point squandered, rather than a point gained.
They needed both points. Coming off a dismal 5-2 loss Thursday to the Vegas Golden Knights and staring at a daunting six-game eastern road trip the next 12 days that begins with back-to-back games against the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, the Canucks were desperate against the Blues.
But that desperation wasn’t enough against the best team in the Western Conference as the Blues rallied from a two-goal deficit and won on Brayden Schenn’s goal at 2:41 of overtime.
The Canucks are 9-8-3 at the quarter pole, tied for the final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference. Sixty-two games from now, they’re expected to be farther down the standings, but the Canucks keep surprising us, and they believe they’re right where they deserve to be early in the playoff race.
“I wouldn’t say a moral victory was acceptable last year either,” winger Derek Dorsett said. “I don’t think moral victories are ever acceptable in the NHL. Obviously, it’s a good sign that when we need a win we can rally together and play a good game, but the National Hockey League is all about consistency and we’ve got to be more consistent. We’ve got to find this mentality consistently.”
This “mentality” was the intensity and drive, lacking against Vegas, that the Canucks displayed against the Blues.
After bottom-three finishes the last two seasons, the Canucks surprised initially with their competitiveness and quicker play under new coach Travis Green. They surprised opponents, too, going 6-3-1 in their first 10 games.
Other teams are ready for the Canucks now. And Vancouver went only 3-5-2 in its last 10 games. But the surprising part now is the Canucks’ resiliency and ability to elevate and compete against the NHL’s best teams when it appears they’re sinking.
On Tuesday, after two losses in California by an aggregate score of 9-1 and facing a potential road-trip disaster, the Canucks overcame an early two-goal deficit and beat the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Kings 3-2.
Then Saturday, after their worst game of the season against Vegas, the Canucks regrouped and competed against the Blues, who at 15-5-1 and with a goal differential of plus-15 are the best team west of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The losses that preceded the Los Angeles and St. Louis games looked like the start of market corrections for a team that may have played above itself in October, but the Canucks were able to muster energy and intensity and take three of four points against formidable opponents who had seemed likely to further expose any false economy to Vancouver’s start.
Whatever the Canucks are – whatever they turn out to be – they are not “weak” in any sense like they were the second half of last season. They compete. And while that may seem like a modest achievement that, in itself, doesn’t get anyone into the playoffs, it is an upgrade for the Canucks and indicative of the culture being repaired in Vancouver.
We’ll know that the Canucks are back when they can close out games like Saturday’s and play consistently at this level without requiring desperate circumstances to inspire them.
“We’ve always found ways to bounce back,” Canucks forward Sven Baertschi said. “I thought the Vegas game was one of those games we just weren’t there mentally. We understood that pretty quick and we wanted to make sure we showed up tonight. Everybody showed up and competed really hard tonight.”
After Markus Granlund scored shorthanded and, five-and-a-half minutes later, Baertschi scored on the power play, the Canucks had the Blues down 3-1 with 29 minutes to go.
But two defensive-zone turnovers and missed coverage in the slot allowed Vladimir Sabotka to score for the Blues at 13:10 of the second period and Joel Edmundson, again unchecked in the high slot, tied it 3-3 4:46 into the third.
Yes, there were controversial officiating decisions that went against the Canucks.
The Blues’ opening goal by Colton Parayko came after an obvious too-many-men line change for St. Louis, which had 10 players on the ice and forwards joining a rush 30 feet from the bench before their teammates had left the playing surface.
Later, an apparent goal by Thomas Vanek on a delayed penalty was waved off on a whistle that infuriated Green, who doesn’t usually yell at referees.
But officiating decisions generally even out over time and good teams, once up 3-1, shouldn’t be losing games under any circumstances.
Canucks rookie Brock Boeser, stickhandling away from both Parayko and Schenn, offset Parayko’s first-period goal. The first three St. Louis goals were unguarded, unscreened bullets that blew past Vancouver goalie Anders Nilsson from distance, and Schenn’s winner knuckled into the net after Canucks defenceman Derrick Pouliot was turned the wrong way.
“We’re not happy with a point,” Erik Gudbranson said. “We’ve got to find a way to close out a game like that.”
Exactly. It shows how the Canucks are growing.