GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Vancouver Canucks will fail in their modest, often-stated goal to play “meaningful games” in March because they lost nearly all their meaningful games in February.
Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes left the Canucks with only four wins in 14 games in February. They lost ground to everyone they’re chasing in the NHL playoff race and in just over 24 hours took only one of four points available in critical games against the Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche, who beat the Canucks 3-2 in a shootout on Wednesday.
The Canucks have gone from a wild-card playoff position to five points out of the final post-season berth in the Western Conference, and even that deficit is flattering because there is now a four-point divide between Vancouver and the two teams who are chasing the two teams that occupy the last two playoff spots.
Good luck convincing any of the Canucks that February is the shortest month of the year.
The Canucks figured Thursday’s game against the Coyotes, who have won five straight, was a playoff game. And yet they lost on pre-season mistakes.
Everyone was trying to take the blame. Goalie Thatcher Demko, starting for the first time since spraining his knee on Feb. 4, was beaten five times on 24 shots and allowed a bad go-ahead goal to Coyote Brad Richardson just 44 seconds after Canuck Tanner Pearson had made it 1-1 at 14:01 of the first.
Brock Boeser took responsibility for his phantom backcheck that allowed Richardson, the ex-Canuck who would finish with a career-best four goals, to complete his hat trick when Arziona made it 3-1 at 11:49 of the second.
Antoine Roussel accepted blame for a careless high-sticking penalty that put the Canucks two men short at 16:51 of the second, 34 seconds before Alex Galchenyuk’s one-timer made it 4-1.
There was lots of blame to go around.
“I think all their goals – we already talked about it – stemmed from our mistakes,” Canucks defenceman Troy Stecher said. “This time of the year, it’s pretty unacceptable, especially with the situation we’re in in the standings. We just need to be better.
“Obviously it’s frustrating. It’s been hard for us to score goals all year, at times. We’ve had some slow starts. But our team battles hard. We never quit in any game. We’re always going to put in a good effort. It sounds weird to say, but we’re going to learn from these lessons as we move on. It’s kind of unfortunate we have to learn them this late in the season.”
Canucks standout Elias Pettersson, who seems have hit the rookie wall three-quarters into his first season, said: “I think we created chances to score goals. But. . . we kind of gave the game away. We played good and then, I don’t know, we just stopped and they scored two quickly (in the second period) and had a 5-on-3. It’s tough.”
Playing for the second time in two nights – and after arriving at their Phoenix hotel from Denver just before 3:00 a.m. – Canucks coach Travis Green chose to start Demko over razor-sharp No. 1 Jacob Markstrom, who handled 45 shots and a six-round shootout against the Avalanche.
Playing just his second NHL game in nearly two months since his promotion from the American League, Demko was ragged. He committed the goaltender’s cardinal sin of failing to give his team a chance to win.
“It’s obviously a big game,” Demko said. “Honestly, I thought the team played well enough to win. So. . . yeah, it’s tough.”
The Canucks had top defenceman Alex Edler back from a frightening head injury, also suffered in Philadelphia on Feb. 4 when he smashed his face into the ice hard enough to suffer a concussion but, miraculously, had no broken bones.
Arizona’s final goal, in the third period, came after Edler botched a set play from an offensive-zone faceoff and turned the puck over at the Coyotes blue line, creating a two-on-one for Richardson to finish.
Chances are any game in which Richardson lands a quad is unwinnable because unseen cosmic forces more powerful than humankind have aligned against you. Still, the Canucks didn’t give themselves a chance.
“In junior, I think I had a five-goal game,” Richardson, 34, said. “It’s been a while. As a kid you score a ton of goals. I think I dreamt of it (scoring four in an NHL game) in the driveway as a kid. But when you get here, you go: ‘Holy [expletive], it’s really hard to score.’ Just one of those nights.”
One of those nights for the Canucks, too.
They outplayed, outchanced and outshot the Coyotes through two periods but we were so poor inside their own blue line that low-scoring Arizona led 4-1.
“Disappointing,” Roussel murmurred. “Very disappointing. We had some good stretches and we just had some, like, bad flashes, and it cost us.”
Starting Sunday afternoon against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Canucks have 17 games remaining and probably need to win 13 or 14 of them just to have a chance of making the playoffs.
Meaningful games? They need a three- or four-game winning streak to get close enough to a playoff spot to have meaningful games. Five more wins gets them to 73 points, which is where they ended last season.
They’re in Vegas. What’s the over/under?