No one has worked harder to lose than the Vancouver Canucks, which is why they are the only winless team remaining in the National Hockey League.
The Canucks ended a five-game, season-opening road trip Thursday with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild.
Playing their fourth game in six nights, the Canucks could not be faulted for their effort. But their execution, and especially the lack of it on special teams, cost them another game in which they led in the third period.
In a road trip that will be remembered for years, the Canucks had multiple-goal leads in the first four games — and a 3-2 lead in Minnesota almost halfway through the third period — but won none of them.
No other team in NHL history has lost this many games to start the year while holding leads of two or more goals. They led in the third period of the last three games, yet still allowed the Wild, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals to rally back for their first wins of the season.
At 0-3-2, the Canucks grabbed just two points on the trip when they could have had seven or eight. Their home-opener Saturday at Rogers Arena against the Buffalo Sabres, in Game 6 of an 82-game season, already feels like a must win for coach Bruce Boudreau and his team.
“It’s no secret that we’re all frustrated,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat told reporters in Minnesota. “In my opinion and probably a lot of guys’ opinion, (we played) probably as good a 60 minutes (as we have) and you just can’t find a way to get a win. That’s where experience has to come in, and leadership. We’ve got to find a way to dig deep to try and get over the hump right now. Once we do, I think things are going to turn around for us. But obviously right now, it sucks.
“I think probably four out of the five of these games we were better than the other team. And I think that’s the most frustrating part where we just can’t seem to get that final point. It’s frustrating. But again. . . we’re going to find a way here.”
MILLER TIME ON ICE
No player epitomizes the Canucks’ early-season struggles more than J.T. Miller, their leading scorer and best player last season, who parlayed a 99-point campaign into a seven-year, $56-million-US contract that doesn’t start until 2023.
Miller looks bereft of confidence, playing at a standstill and fighting with the puck each time it comes to him. Everything he tries seems forced. Miller went through five games with just one even-strength point and was outscored 13-4 in all situations. Boudreau tried him with a different combination of wingers in each of the last four games.
On Thursday, with five-on-five shots 8-2 in favour of the Wild when Miller was on the ice, the Canuck was still bestowed 20:07 of ice time by Boudreau, who had the centre out second in overtime. Miller never made it off the ice, trapped on a two-minute shift that ended with Kirill Kaprizov scoring the winner at 3:02 as Minnesota skated four-against-three on a delayed penalty.
About 10 seconds before the goal, the puck came around to Miller along the defensive sideboards. He had the time to make a play to clear his zone, but instead stopped the puck, eventually lost a battle for it and never touched it again.
The Canucks obviously need Miller. He has, as Boudreau referred to his players last season, the heart of a lion. But he’s not even close to the king of the jungle right now, and there were a bunch of safer choices Boudreau could have made in overtime.
TALE OF TWO PPs
Each team had one chance on the power play in the third period. The Wild scored on theirs, as Mats Zuccarello deftly redirected Kaprizov’s shot-pass short side on Canuck goalie Thatcher Demko to tie it 3-3 at 8:31.
When the Canucks got their chance in the final five minutes, Horvat and Andrei Kuzmenko could not beat goalie Marc-Andre Fleury even with Grade-A scoring chances.
“It’s just going to take one or two to go in for us,” Horvat said. “I mean, it’s not like we’re not getting our looks. I’d be more concerned if we weren’t getting opportunities. Kuzy has one backdoor, I have a couple in the slot that I just missed on. It’s just a matter of bearing down and putting those ones in and it’s a different game.”
Vancouver’s power play finished the road trip 2-for-19, while also allowing a pair of shorthanded goals that tied games. Vancouver’s penalty killing is even worse, 58.8 per cent after yielding seven goals on 17 disadvantages.
No NHL team is remotely as bad as the Canucks are on special teams through five games. And not much else will matter as long as this continues to be the case.
FOURTH LINE FIRST
Boudreau took heat on social media, as someone always does, for scratching energetic-but-goal-less winger Nils Hoglander, while choosing to keep Dakota Joshua in the lineup to play on the fourth line with Nils Aman and Curtis Lazar.
The trio was the Canucks’ best, winning their matchups with an 80.2 per cent expected-goals-for while outscoring the Wild 2-0.
Joshua held the puck up at the Minnesota blue line before dishing to Aman, who scored beautifully on a quick breakaway at 16:47 of the opening period for his first NHL goal. Joshua then broke a 2-2 tie at 13:37 of the second period, chopping his own rebound over Fleury after a deflection on Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s point shot.
Lazar didn’t register a point, but worked tenaciously all game and made a huge defensive contribution late in the third period when he blocked consecutive shots by Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin during sustained pressure by the Wild.
THE BLUE AND BLACK LINE
On a night when Tucker Poolman was back out of the Vancouver lineup, likely with recurring migraine issues, the Canucks lost defenceman Riley Stillman in the second period. Stillman absorbed a couple of punches from Brandon Duhaime in a fight the Canuck initiated after Duhaime hit Kyle Burroughs. Shortly after getting out of the penalty box, Stillman was checked high by Joel Eriksson Ek. Following a lengthy conversation at the bench with medical staff, he eventually exited for the Canucks dressing room
The team has been without two or three regular defencemen in each game so far.
Myers rejoined the team for Tuesday’s overtime loss in Columbus, but Travis Dermott remains out indefinitely after suffering a concussion during practice in the opening week of the pre-season.