VANCOUVER – The effort was better. But so was the opponent, so the result was the same: another loss for the Vancouver Canucks.
They were beaten 5-2 Friday by the Minnesota Wild, who dominated for stretches but clung to a one-goal lead until scoring twice in the final minute. Vancouver’s effort was profoundly better than in its 2-1 loss Wednesday to the Arizona Coyotes, a performance that Canucks coach Travis Green said may have been the worst of his team’s National Hockey League season.
But against the Wild, the Canucks still never really looked like they could win. They scored first and held the lead for 49 seconds. They tried hard, but the NHL is not a good-try league. Vancouver just isn’t good enough with seven regulars lost to injuries, the unlucky seventh being Calder Trophy candidate Brock Boeser.
The Canucks are 0-2 since their top scorer was hurt Monday against the New York Islanders. That 4-3 overtime win feels like a month ago.
Just as a broken foot suffered by top centre Bo Horvat in December pushed injuries to a critical mass and led to the Canucks’s winter collapse, it feels like the back injury to Boeser is a loss too great to overcome.
That old bleakness seems again to have settled in the Canucks like a disease. Vancouver has 14 games left – seven of the next eight on the road – and, honestly, it’s difficult to picture the Canucks winning any of them if their opponent shows up and competes.
The Canucks are an abysmal 11-24-5 since the Horvat injury marked the turning point in their season. They’re stuck at 59 points and right now last season’s alarming total of 69 looks like Mount Everest.
“When you have a 30-goal scorer out of your lineup, you can’t fill that role,” defenceman Michael Del Zotto said of Boeser, who is done for the season. “It’s impossible. Same as having Tanny (Chris Tanev) out of your lineup; one guy doesn’t fill a role like that. We’ve had tough luck with injuries, no question. But it’s not an excuse. Every team goes through it.
“For us, I think our biggest issue is our effort, our compete level, night in and night out. And that’s one thing we can control. You can’t control injuries, can’t control calls going your way and things like that. But your work ethic is something you can control every single day. Being able to look at yourself in the mirror after a game and knowing you gave everything you had for the guy next to you, I think that’s one thing we need to keep getting better at.”
So unhappy was Green after getting dominated by the 31st-place Coyotes that he scratched third-year players Nikolay Goldobin and Ben Hutton against the Wild. Veteran extras Nic Dowd and Alex Biega took their spots.
Clearly, the moves weren’t about Dowd and Biega, but an attempt to contact Goldobin and Hutton, who may never get a better chance than the next four weeks to prove they should be in the NHL – if not in Vancouver next fall, then somewhere else.
Biega and Dowd provided effort, but the Canucks were still overmatched.
“For sure we played a better game,” Jussi Jokinen, another veteran getting playing time from Green, said. “We just didn’t find a way to win.”
Badly needing to start well after their atrocious 17-shot performance on Wednesday, the Canucks received a gift from Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk in the opening minute. Del Zotto squeezed a shot through Dubnyk’s pads that trickled wide, but picked up the puck on his way around the net and made it 1-0 on a wraparound at 53 seconds.
But as poor as Dubnyk looked on that goal, Canuck Anders Nilsson was even worse a minute later when Zach Parise, spotting a gap over the shrinking goalie’s shoulder, chipped the puck in short-side from an acute angle to tie it at 1:42.
Minnesota’s Matt Cullen, the 41-year-old with a 21-year-old’s wheels, made it 2-1 at 2:46 of the second period, easily deking Nilsson after a great pass by Tyler Ennis exposed the defensive confusion between Canucks Jake Virtanen and Derrick Pouliot.
When it seemed like the Canucks might crumble, Jokinen snatched a tying goal at 7:51 from Dubnyk’s spring-loaded rebound of a harmless shot by Erik Gudbranson.
The Wild, however, continued to dictate play and at 15:38, Eric Staal’s 37th goal of the year gave them a 3-2 lead. Staal was simply too strong for Canucks defenceman Troy Stecher, who couldn’t prevent a net-side tap-in from Mikael Granlund’s pass.
The third frame saw the Canucks outshot their opponents for the first time in seven periods, but they couldn’t get another puck past Dubnyk, who allowed Pouliot’s point shot to go through him and off the post.
“I felt a lot better about our game,” Gudbranson said. “But it’s still frustrating to lose.”
Not surprising, though.