Nobody likes playing hockey in Newark, where the rink is nearly as bleak as the neighborhood and the opponent is uninspiring. Manhattan is so tantalizingly near, yet seems in another country.
The National Hockey League team’s impressive December surge came to a crashing end Monday with a 4-0 loss to the Devils, who haven’t lost at home in regulation to the Canucks since 2012, when Cory Schneider played goal in Vancouver instead of New Jersey.
Despite badly outplaying the Devils at even strength through two periods, the Canucks couldn’t get a puck past hot minor-league call-up Mackenzie Blackwood, a second-round pick from 2015 who made 25 saves – 18 of them in the first half of the game – to become the first NHL rookie in three seasons to post consecutive shutouts.
The Canucks power play was dismal, Vancouver goalie Anders Nilsson didn’t produce a big save until the game was out of reach, and the team couldn’t muster any of the magic that had generated an 8-2-1 run that included an emotional 3-2 overtime win Saturday night in Calgary.
The Canucks, who should be a lot better in 2019, open the new year and end their six-game road trip with three straight in Eastern Canada, starting Wednesday in Ottawa.
TIME FOR DEMKO?
Most Canucks talking points radiated from goalie Anders Nilsson, and the hottest stream of debate is whether it’s time to replace the backup with prospect Thatcher Demko.
Like the Devils’ Blackwood, Demko is halfway through his third pro season and looks ready for an extended trial at the NHL level. Like Blackwood, he was also a second-round pick, but in 2014, so Demko is a year older at age 23. His resume in the American Hockey League is more impressive than Blackwood’s.
After missing the first two months of this season, Demko has played well if not spectacularly, going 7-5-1 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .909 save percentage with the Utica Comets. Having gone 25-13-4 with a .922 save rate last season, there isn’t much left for Demko to prove at the AHL level.
He might have been with the Canucks already had he not struggled badly in September before suffering a concussion. But Demko has demonstrated in the last six weeks that both his head and game are fine.
The problem is getting him on the roster. The Canucks 23-man roster is maxed out and the team will likely need to waive or trade a skater this week to get centre Brandon Sutter off the injured list. So getting Demko to the NHL likely means moving Nilsson elsewhere.
The team could simply waive the backup who is on an expiring contract worth $2.5 million this season. The far better option would be to trade Nilsson, but it will be a challenge for GM Jim Benning to find someone willing to relinquish an asset for a goalie who has lost nine straight starts and possesses a .895 save percentage.
This could be an interesting week for the Canucks off the ice.
Jacob Markstrom just finished the best month of his career, going 8-1 in December with a 1.66 GAA and .943 save rate. He was the best goalie in the NHL for the month. At first glance, it was a dubious decision by Green to start Nilsson over Markstrom against the Devils.
But as we’ve noted before, Markstrom plays best with periodic games off and extra practice time with goaltending guru Ian Clark. Markstrom’s four straight starts before Monday was his longest uninterrupted run since his game began to spike in late November, which is also when Nilsson returned from injury and gave Green a viable alternative in net.
Also, with a 10 a.m. puck drop in New Jersey (according to the Canucks’ Pacific time zone clock) after a cross-continent travel day between games on Sunday, the Devils looked like a trap game. It was a good day to rest Markstrom, even if it looked like a bad day to start Nilsson.
But if the Canucks are to have any hope of trading Nilsson, he has to play.
It’s been a long time since you could say the Canucks’ dynamic duo of Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser were not factors. Boeser did not register a shot on net – mirroring Vancouver’s final three power plays on an 0-for-4 night – and Pettersson finished with three shots in 18:55 of ice time.
The Canucks dominated the Devils at even strength, outshooting them 21-10 late in the second period, but did not force Blackwood to make many difficult saves.
At 1:31 of the final period, Sami Vatanen’s unscreened 55-footer beat Nilsson, who was slightly hindered on the play by defenceman Alex Edler, and the Canucks were done. It was one of only a handful of times this season the team didn’t fully compete until the end, getting outshot 10-4 in the final 20 minutes and failing to test Blackwood for the first seven of them.
ONCE MORE WITHOUT FEELING
We leave you with Nikolay Goldobin’s stat line: 12:28 time on ice including 2:58 on the power play, no points, no shots on net and only one attempted, no blocks or hits, minus-2 rating and 38.9 shots-for percentage in a game when 15 Canucks skaters were above 50 per cent.