Canucks battle dwindling confidence ahead of rematch with Oilers

Iain MacIntyre and Dan Murphy discuss J.T. Miller’s comments on his play and on-ice demeanor.

VANCOUVER — There is an old joke that if you want to see the Vancouver Canucks in first place, just hold the National Hockey League standings upside down.

It dates from when most people read the standings in their morning newspapers. No one reads their laptop upside down.

The Canucks were in first place for significant stretches of the digital age, but not recently. They spent the last three years slowly migrating north, away from the bottom of the standings. But nearing the mid-point of the 2021 season, they have fallen mightily back towards the basement of the North Division, buffered from dead last only by the Ottawa Senators.

Had the Canucks split their three-game series with the Senators in late January instead of sweeping it, Ottawa would also be ahead of Vancouver.

As the Canucks head into Thursday night’s rematch against the Edmonton Oilers, the biggest danger to them is neither Connor McDavid nor Leon Draisaitl, but hopelessness. The grave danger is resignation, that their season is already over after an 8-13-2 start.

“I'm sure everyone looks at the standings,” Canucks coach Travis Green told reporters Thursday morning — and by everyone, he meant his players, too. “It's a lot easier to look at them when you're near the top of the standings than it is when you're at the bottom, but we talked to our group about that today. Yeah, it feels like there's pressure on you when you haven't won as much you've wanted. And that's okay. That's part of the business.

“But how does that pressure affect you is the most important thing. The pressure affects you when things are going well a lot easier than when they're not. And our group always plays a stronger, better game when we have energy and we're just playing. At the end of the day, you've still got to go out on the ice and just play, and play to your strengths. I thought we've been doing a pretty good job of that for a while here.”

They have. Over the last eight games, the Canucks have outplayed their opponents overall but have taken just six of 16 points (2-4-2). Tuesday, they reached a new emotional low by blowing a three-goal lead against the Oilers and losing 4-3 in regulation.

It has been so long since the team’s effort and better play were rewarded with successful results that the Canucks’ problems in games — even while leading — appear to be as much about confidence and psychology as execution. Their heads are getting in the way of their bodies.

“Confidence is what makes any athlete play at their best,” defenceman Nate Schmidt said Wednesday. “If you're confident in your own game and you're confident in what you're doing, you don't have to think much. You just go out and play. You don't have to worry about if they score, you're not worried about (bad) things that are happening in the game.

“We have a team that's got swag, and if you go out and play with it, you play well. You try and have that mentality, like: I can make that play, we're in this thing for a reason, we can do these types of things. And you've got to go out and back it up.

“This is a game full of mistakes and whoever makes the least amount of them usually comes out on top. Having that belief in your team and the other guys is something that's incredibly vital to your success as a group and as an individual. You're going to have times you're going to get beat, you're going to have times where things are going to happen and things are going break down. You hope you can be there for your teammate to help him out and just, vice versa, they can be there for you when you need their help. It's not going to be perfect all the time. It's being able to pick up the slack for guys when you need it and when they need it.”

Green is expected to try another coaching tool tonight by altering his top three forward lines, dropping last season’s leading scorer, J.T. Miller, to the third unit with Brandon Sutter and Adam Gaudette. In Wednesday’s practice, rookie Nils Hoglander replaced Miller alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, while one-goal scorer Jake Virtanen was bumped up to play with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson on the second line.

Thatcher Demko will start in goal for Vancouver for the sixth time in eight games.

Green did not say if defenceman Travis Hamonic, who has missed 18 games with an injury, will return to the lineup tonight.

The Canucks did not skate Thursday morning but held a team meeting where, as Green said, they talked about pressure.

There is a lot of anger in the fan base that viewed last summer’s surprising playoff run as a breakthrough, not an anomaly.

“Their thoughts and feelings are the same thoughts that I have,” Schmidt said. “When you step out (on the ice) you've got to win. And you put that type of onus on your own game. I want to win. Team wants to win. I'm happy that our fans want us to win. I'd feel worse right now if you were, like ... well, it just is what it is. (Winning is) the same expectations that I have, same expectations that we have.”

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