Amid four-game slide, time has come for Canucks to make a stand

Dan Murphy looks at the Canucks' recent struggles including a tough loss to the Seattle Kraken, why Vancouver's recent scheduling may play a part in their on-ice woes, and how the players aren't using it as an excuse for their poor play as of late.

VANCOUVER – A team that was in the Stanley Cup conversation a week ago has suddenly dropped four straight games and looked awful Thursday in a dismal road loss against an opponent going nowhere. We’re speaking, of course, about the Dallas Stars.

The Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights, on the other hand, have lost only four of their last five. The previous National Hockey League title-holders, the Colorado Avalanche, emerged this month from the all-star break and lost four consecutive games during a 1-4-1 road trip. The Winnipeg Jets lost five straight before and after the break.

Even Connor McDavid’s mighty Edmonton Oilers, who rocketed to Stanley Cup favourites from wildcard hopefuls during an historic 16-game winning streak before the mid-season intermission, are scuffling along at 4-4 since the break.

It may feel like the sky is falling again in Vancouver, where the Canucks have lost four straight games in regulation – one-quarter of their season total – and open a daunting homestand against the NHL-leading Boston Bruins on Saturday, but apparently there are cumulonimbus clouds crashing all around the Western Conference. 

For what it’s worth, despite the Bruins’ perch alongside the Canucks at the top of the NHL points standings, Boston lost four games in a row after beating Vancouver 4-0 at home on Feb. 8.

This all seems like strange preparation to try winning a Stanley Cup. But as Canucks coach Rick Tocchet says, you can’t pick and choose your adversity. The adversity finds you.

What amplifies the Canucks’ crisis is they are the only team among these championship contenders (except maybe for Winnipeg) that has vastly exceeded pre-season projections — while owning easily the darkest decade of past performance. 

So for many, this isn’t just a losing streak for the Canucks, but a reveal – truth serum that they were never as good as they looked in the standings. “The Canucks are who we thought they were,” you can just about hear skeptics and every analytics wonk bellowing.

And maybe they are.

The Canucks will determine who was right and wrong about them by how they finish this season. But this three-game homestand against Boston, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, piled on top of 10 games in 17 days in nine cities over four time zones, sure feels like an important term paper ahead of the final exam this spring.

[brightcove videoID=6347458663112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“We’ve got to respond,” Canucks winger Conor Garland said Friday after an optional practice at the University of B.C. “There’s pressure from inside. I think we’ve done a really good job of ignoring the noise this year. You know, you win three games and people here start saying you’re great. And then you lose a game and you’re not a good team at all. So you just ignore that stuff. There’s pressure from within. There’s pressure that we know, to a man, that we’ve got to play a lot better.

“You have to just stick with it. Like, you’re going to win games. We’re a really good team. But we can’t throw efforts like we did against Seattle or you’ll never win.”

Ah, yes, Seattle and Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Kraken – a chance to relive the desolation of the last three years when the Canucks weren’t close to good enough on many nights.

Tocchet gave his players a truth-blast in his post-game press conference, saying: “Not much compete from the guys. There was a lot of no-shows tonight. I mean, this is not even close to playoff hockey. I don’t care what our record is; it’s been a little bit disturbing some of the efforts from some of the guys right now.”

[brightcove videoID=6347443376112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

That was the condensed version. For the visual learners on the team, Tocchet showed a video before Friday’s practice.

“He’s right,” Garland said. “We saw the film today, and it was not anything like what we’ve been all year. It’s definitely a tough time to have one of those games.

“A lot of guys are not happy about their game. I would say four or five, but I’m sure it’s 20 guys aren’t happy with their performance last game. We’re eager, I’m sure, to play tomorrow and have a good effort. And we will. I’d be shocked if we don’t have a good effort. I don’t think it’s a win or a loss that’s like the end-all-be-all, but I think we have to go out and play well and just find our game again.”

Until Thursday, when the Canucks had only 14 shots on net nearly halfway through the third period and were getting lapped by Kraken skaters, Vancouver had actually played solidly at five-on-five during the losing streak.

They’ve been outscored 7-1 on special teams this week, but they played the Jets (4-2 loss on Saturday), Minnesota Wild (10-7 Monday) and Avalanche (3-1 Tuesday) even at five-on-five. All four games have been tied either late in the second period or early in the third. The Canucks have generated 53 per cent of shot attempts and 52 per cent of expected goals while being outscored 11-10 at five-on-five.

But in all but the game in Denver, where the Canucks lost on an unlucky own-goal deflection in the third period, the opposition’s best players stepped up late in games and made plays to win it. Some of Vancouver’s best players, and especially linemates Elias Pettersson and Elias Lindholm, have been quiet.

[brightcove videoID=6347203891112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

The Eliases have only one point apiece the last four games and are minus-five.

“Anytime you go into a game, your best players have to be your best players,” Tocchet said Friday. “Now, it’s not always going to work. The other teams are good and sometimes they’re going to do a good job of shutting you down. But you have to find a way sometimes. I think our guys want that (responsibility). They’ll tell you; they want to be the best players on the ice.”

Canuck struggles are epitomized by a power play that is on a 1-for-28 freefall and not only has failed to score but has failed at times to even generate chances or momentum despite boasting four of the top-25 scorers in the NHL.

“Listen, we have difference-makers,” Tocchet said. “But right now, it’s like we’re deferring the puck a lot. We’re not seeing stuff. And quite frankly, an eight-foot pass isn’t an automatic eight-foot pass. We’re really having a tough time, and I think that’s pressure. That’s something we have to deal with. I would like more movement, and I would like better shot selection. So hopefully, we can get something going. Maybe there’s other ways of doing it; maybe go with two different units.”

Tocchet said he can’t leave Pettersson and Lindholm together if they’re not going to drive play, but balked at reuniting Pettersson with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser. 

“Everybody’s got to be hard to play against,” the coach said. “We’re going through a stretch now we knew. . .  was going to be a tough part (of the schedule). If we can win tomorrow, we’ll be .500 (5-5-1) in this tough stretch. It’s not that bad. But we can’t keep saying, ‘Well, we’re still in first place.’ We’ve got to make a little bit of a stand.”

Or a big one.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.