Young Canucks still trying to stem tide as Oilers showdowns loom

Pittsburgh Penguins' Bryan Rust (17) and Vancouver Canucks' Elias Pettersson (40) vie for the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

EDMONTON — The date: Nov. 28, 2006. Elias Pettersson was eight years old. Connor McDavid was nine.

The scenario: Both the Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks were both holding a Western Conference playoff spot, something we thought would be routine, considering the Oilers had gone to the Stanley Cup final the year before.

Well, as it turns out, that was the last time Vancouver and Edmonton were both top-eight teams this late in a season — until here in 2019, where the first- and third-place teams in the Pacific Division open a weekend home and home Saturday night in Edmonton.

“I think it’s awesome to see,” said Canucks defenceman Troy Stecher. “We always talk about who is going to be Canada’s team, and when it comes down to one I don’t necessarily feel like the country rallies around one particular team. The more teams that get in there, the better.”

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You’d be hard pressed to find an “expert” back in October who had both the Canucks and Oilers in their final playoff bracket, but as November turns into December, there they both are.

It’s the Oilers who have found a bit of a groove, having lost twice in a row in regulation just once this season, while the Canucks are on a roller coaster, having won just three of their past 12 and riding their third two-game losing streak of the season. In their last game, an 8-6 loss at Pittsburgh, the Canucks had a 6-3 lead with 15:00 to play and coughed up the game.

As a young team, stemming the tide is something the Canucks are trying to master. Whether that is a losing streak, or an in-game momentum swing.

“You don’t want to say it’s trial and error, but you learn from the experiences you go through as a group and as an individual,” Stecher said. “It sucks when it happens (the Pittsburgh game). But you watch film, you’ve got to have thick skin, and understand we’re all trying to teach each other here. We’re all in the same boat.”

Did they do one film session after that Pittsburgh game? Or did it require an intermission break?

“We did one big, big, big one,” he said with a wry chuckle. “You come to the rink, everyone’s kinda quiet… But, it’s a new day today.”

As Vancouver faces a tough back-to-back against a team they trail by seven points in the Pacific standings, they face the issue that all building organizations must deal with. The Canucks are quite a good team when they have all their horses, but once a few key veterans go down, they don’t have the roster depth to keep winning.

With Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle down the middle, the Canucks have excellent balance at the centre ice position. Beagle and Sutter are injured, however, which throws head coach Travis Green’s matchups into the blender.

“(It changes) who some of our guys are playing against,” Green admits. “We had full confidence in Beagle and Sutter to go up against a lot of different centremen in the league. It gave us the luxury of sliding our fourth line out against a first or second line. It also gave us an opportunity to get Petey out against third and fourth lines.”

With Beagle and Sutter out, much of the heavy lifting falls to Horvat, who has evolved into a fine young leader and No. 2 centreman.

“Definitely it’s a hit on our team, from a faceoff perspective and a matchup perspective,” Horvat said. “I’ve been having to take a lot more defensive responsibility since those guys have been out, so I have to try to manage my game a little differently.

“I’m not going to sugar coat it — they’re a huge part of our team.”

Against the Oilers — especially in Edmonton — Pettersson will get a steady diet of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the NHL’s top-two scorers. It’s a lot to ask of a 21-year-old sophomore.

“You appreciate it as a spectator,” Horvat said of the season being had by the two Oilers superstars. “You don’t want it to happen to you.”

“You have to respect what those guys are doing, they’re on an unbelievable pace. It’s hard not to keep an eye on them, they’re on the scoresheet every single night,” he said. “When you’re playing against two of the best guys in the league, you’re going to take your game to the next level. It’s a good test for us (Saturday) night.

“We should be excited to play.”

And it should be exciting to watch — on back-to-back nights.

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