PITTSBURGH – There are about 170,000 words in the English language, and yet there seems to be no adequate combination to describe what the Vancouver Canucks did on Wednesday night.
Almost the same could be said generally about the mercurial NHL team, which distilled all the wonderful and alarming traits it possesses into an astonishing 8-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Canucks were atrocious in the first period, amazing in the second, and what-the-heck-did-we-just-see in the third.
In a span of 27 minutes, the Canucks scored six out of seven goals to turn a 0-2 deficit into a 6-3 lead. And then they surrendered five goals in the final 14 minutes to a Pittsburgh team playing without Sidney Crosby.
There have been innumerable NHL games where one team’s initial dominance was undone by a late-surging opponent. But rare is the game in which you trail by two goals (and could have been down by four), lead by three and then surrender five-straight to a team that was playing against air by the end.
“I’ve been around long enough to see it, but to be involved in something like this personally, I don’t remember,” veteran Canucks defenceman Jordie Benn said. “These are types of games you just want to get out of the building and forget about it. I have no idea how to explain this. It’s one of those games, like I said, we’ve just got to forget about.”
Well, good luck with that.
The Canucks actually blew a four-goal lead a month ago when they lost 6-5 to the Washington Capitals. But Vancouver wasn’t even outplayed in the third period of that one, and still got a point by making it to overtime.
This was different.
Adam Gaudette’s second goal of the game came 35 seconds after J.T. Miller’s second of the night, to put Vancouver ahead 6-3 at 3:06 of the third period. Then the Penguins rattled the Canucks by heading to the net instead of the exits.
From the time Penguins forward Dominik Kahun was able to sling in a rebound at 6:16, after Gaudette lost yet another defensive-zone faceoff and Benn was caught on the wrong side of Jared McCann, the Canucks looked unable to make a pass, win the puck, move their feet or check anyone.
Evgeni Malkin made it 6-5 at 7:24 on a power-play blast that goalie Thatcher Demko failed to locate, after Canucks’ penalty killer Tim Schaller inexplicably overskated an uncontested loose puck.
Zach Ashton-Reese tied it on a rebound at 10:30 after top Vancouver defenceman Alex Edler broke his stick and went to stand in Demko’s way, beside defence partner Troy Stecher. Kris Letang won the game with 3:06 remaining, potting a short-side one-timer.
Vancouver winger Brock Boeser turned the puck over before the tying goal and gave Letang too much room to shoot on the winner.
“It was 6-3 and I know our team was feeling pretty good about themselves,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “We hit the post to (almost) make it 7-3 and we took a penalty, which happens. I thought we made a couple of individual mistakes that we’d like to have back. They capitalized on it to make it 6-5 quick, and I thought then we felt the heat a little bit.
“You could feel it in the building. All of a sudden, Malkin kind of took over the game a bit. We had a young group of forwards playing and probably hadn’t been in that kind of scenario in the NHL. . . maybe ever. It felt like all of sudden, we wouldn’t make a play, we lost some puck battles in our zone. Those kind of games, you’ve got to pay the price to win, and I don’t think we did that.”
Miller said: “I’m just trying not to be too negative right now. Just not good enough. They just wanted to win more than we did, I think, most of the night.”
Did Canuck players think it was over at 6-3?
“That’s not for me to say,” Miller said. “I don’t know.”
Rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes, who was Vancouver’s best player, said: “It happened really fast. We were up 6-3 and had a couple of really good chances. It was definitely hard to believe. When Gaudette scored that goal, I think everyone on the bench thought we were going to win that game for sure.”
The Canucks not only missed injured, experienced checking centres Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle in the last 14 minutes — they turned them into Selke Trophy contenders.
If the Canucks, who 13 minutes into the game trailed 2-0 and still hadn’t registered a shot, play as poorly in their own end against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Edmonton Oilers could score three touchdowns in their two games against Vancouver this weekend.
Shutdown defenceman Chris Tanev, who is in his 10th season with the Canucks, said he had never seen a game like the one his team played on Wednesday.
“We were not very good whatsoever,” Tanev said. “You’re up by three with 14 minutes left or whatever it is, it’s embarrassing. We’ll look at ourselves, take a good hard look. We need to be better, need to work harder everywhere on the ice. We gave up eight goals and if it wasn’t for Demko, we’d have given up another eight goals. This is something that can’t happen.”
But it did. Remarkably, spectacularly, it did.