Canucks’ brief momentum extinguished, with playoff hopes soon to follow

David Rittich got his first win by making just 15 saves, Auston Matthews got on the score against as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Vancouver Canucks 4-1.

Considering what they’ve been through and how the ghosts of COVID-19 and the National Hockey League’s revised schedule have swamped them, it’s probably asking too much for the Vancouver Canucks to deliver many more positive results this season.

The best their fans can hope for some nights will be a good effort and a good story, and the Canucks at least provided both of those on Thursday when they lost 4-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in winger Kole Lind’s NHL debut.

But that bottom line further darkened a team whose momentum generated last week by a surprising, resilient return from their coronavirus crisis has now been fully extinguished, which is what their fading playoffs hopes will soon be, too, if the Canucks are unable to start winning games again.

They competed as best they could against the mighty Maple Leafs, but were still beaten soundly by Canada’s best team, which rested two of their top defencemen but still led 3-0 after 23 minutes before managing the clock and their effort.

The Canucks are 0-3 on a road trip that ends Saturday with another game against the Leafs, and remain 10 points behind the Montreal Canadiens with four games in-hand in the “race” for the final playoff spot.

“I thought we were much better tonight than we were last night, I’ll tell you that,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “Man, 24-16 were the shots, that was a tight, competitive game. We probably played better tonight against this team than we did the first game at home off the COVID break (when the Canucks beat the Leafs 3-2 in overtime).

“We just kind of build on the positives from tonight and learn from the mistakes that we did make. We had a couple that we’d like to have back. I thought we had a couple of young players that looked a little tired tonight.”

Most of his team looked tired in Wednesday’s sloppy 6-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators.

But the path to defeat was similar: trailing 1-0 after a mediocre opening period, the Canucks needed a second-period surge but instead gave up two goals in two minutes on sloppy coverage, and were done.

Bo Horvat, filling in at the point for defenceman Quinn Hughes, made a bad read and was bypassed on a two-on-one that Auston Matthews finished from Mitch Marner’s pass to make it 2-0 51 seconds into the middle period.

Defenceman Travis Hamonic’s bad read and pinch at the Toronto blue line soon led to another outnumbered rush that made it 3-0 at 2:57 when Vancouver goalie Braden Holtby was unable to keep out Pierre Engvall’s shot from a sharp angle.

William Nylander scored the only goal of the opening period, at 15:29, after Hughes’ cross-ice flip was blocked inside the Vancouver blue line and the sophomore defenceman played the airborne puck into a turnover.

Hughes finished minus-four and in two games over 26 hours managed to go minus-seven while the Canucks were being outscored 10-4.

“I think we held in there for the most part, but the first half of the game, you need a save or something to change the momentum and we didn’t get that tonight,” Holtby said. “Just didn’t get on the right side of it.

“We’re trying to grind our way through. It hasn’t been easy. You’re experiencing things that you haven’t felt before, so it’s different. But we have a pretty proud group that’s just going to put our best effort out every single time we can. That’s all we’re focused on. It is what it is right now and we’re just trying to win games.”

J.T. Miller’s power-play bank shot off Toronto goalie David Rittich late in the second period wasn’t nearly enough to get Vancouver the win.

The Canucks managed only five shots in the third period, but the encouraging aspect of it was that Lind was promoted alongside Horvat and Tanner Pearson for the final frame and finished his first NHL game with 17:12 of ice time, two shots on net and several smart defensive plays.

The 22-year-old second-round pick was initially brought to Vancouver from the minor-league Utica Comets in March to have a facial fracture examined, but got to stay with the Canucks after their COVID crisis in April. His last American Hockey League game was on March 3.

“There’s not really words to (describe) a game like that,” Lind told reporters on Zoom. “My dream just came true, obviously, playing that game.

“It’s tough to put into words — all that my parents, my family have sacrificed. I took a really deep breath just kind of before I got out there and crossed my fingers that I didn’t fall.”

After getting just five protected shifts in the first period, Lind spent most of third period lined up against Joe Thornton and the Matthews line.

“I think I lined up quite a few times with him there in the third period,” Lind said. “Yeah, it’s crazy to think of all the accomplishments he’s had. You try to not let your jaw drop when you’re out there against guys like him and Matthews and Marner.”

He earned himself another game on Saturday. That was something positive, at least.

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