VANCOUVER – On the way to their nadir back in 2017 – at least, we thought it was the low point – the Vancouver Canucks managed to go winless on a five-game homestand near the end of Willie Desjardins’ final season as coach.
He was replaced later that spring by Travis Green, and the Canucks began to get incrementally better. Adding some of the most talented, dynamic young players in franchise history has helped a little. But Thursday’s 3-0 shutout loss to the Edmonton Oilers ended the Canucks’ worst significant homestand since then, as Vancouver went 0-3-1 against the Oilers and Winnipeg Jets.
But even as the Canucks plummet back down the National Hockey League standings, we still can’t see the bottom. It already feels worse than that 69-point season four years ago.
That Vancouver team was finally starting to get serious about a rebuild and everyone knew it would be lousy. These Canucks won two playoff rounds last summer and, with the foundation of their team re-constructed on Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, Vancouver is now 8-14-2 in the pandemic-shortened season and has two wins in 12 games in February.
Green said late Thursday that playing well and not winning, as the Canucks have generally done the last eight games, feels like banging your head against a wall. Everyone has headaches.
“I think that right now we've been playing a lot better and just not getting the result and, obviously, that has a different kind of frustration of its own,” goalie Thatcher Demko said after his own impressive and unfruitful performance. “It's another thing that this team here is going to have to battle through.
“It's obviously hard. It's kind of the same thing that we've been talking about: playing a pretty good game there, I thought, and not being able to find the back of the net. I thought we created some really good chances and it's just kind of the way the game went.”
The Oilers are the opposite of the Canucks. They’ve won 10 of 12 and just as the Canucks, no matter how well they play, still look likely to lose, the Oilers always seem to be on the verge of winning regardless of the score.
And what has Edmonton done to goalie Mike Smith? The 38-year-old not only is playing like vintage Mike Smith but looks like vintage Dominik Hasek, doing cartwheels – literally – to keep the puck out and making saves with leg movements more traditionally associated with synchronized swimming.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 26, 2021
Smith stopped all 32 Canucks shots to improve on his .944 save percentage this season.
All Edmonton needed besides its goalie were power-play markers by Alex Chiasson and Jesse Puljujarvi and an empty-netter from Connor McDavid, who was held to eight shots on net.
Demko stopped every even-strength shot but was powerless to help the Canucks’ struggling power play.
Yet again, the 22nd-ranked unit was a major disappointment and a major factor, finishing 0-for-4 and failing to register a single shot on target during two third-period advantages when the score was only 1-0.
Green has talked often this season about urgency and intensity in the Canucks’ even-strength game, but those principles should also apply to a power play that had zone time but few close-range chances. J.T. Miller chipped a rebound wide on Vancouver’s first power play, which also saw Boeser stopped by Smith in tight during the first period. But after that, there was a lot of perimeter passing and the failed hope that Pettersson might wire a one-timer from distance.
“It's a little bit different type of urgency though,” Green said. “We talk about our skating and our compete a lot in our room. And yet, when you're playing with the puck, it's a little bit different. Sometimes you force plays, too, when you're trying to play urgent. I'm not going to sit here and pick apart our power play. They're trying to do their best and it didn't go their way tonight. And they know that. That group ...in a game like this, you know that your power play didn't get the job done. But on the flip side, our penalty kill didn't get it done either.”
With the same players on the top unit, the Canucks’ power play was fourth in the NHL last season at 24.2 per cent. This season, the aggregate success rate is just 15.9 per cent. The power play went 1-for-13 on the homestand.
“We're just not putting the puck in the net when we need to right now,” Green said. “We had a lot of good looks tonight. We had some guys that hadn't scored in a while that, normally, that puck probably goes in for them. You feel for those guys because you know they want to score bad and help.”
He was speaking especially of Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette, who had the best scoring chances in the second period but were foiled by Smith.
Green said he liked his deployment changes at forward, as Miller was dropped to the third line from the first, Virtanen moved up to play with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson, while rookie Nils Hoglander accompanied Pettersson and Boeser on the top unit.
Hoglander led the Canucks with five shots and drew the loudest cheer of the night from teammates for steamrolling Oilers defenceman Kris Russell.
But the result was still another loss. And zero goals.
“From a coach's standpoint, the frustration level is higher when you're not playing well,” Green said. “When you're playing well and not getting results, you tend to feel like you're banging your head against the wall and you feel for your players a little bit.
"And I think it's probably harder on the players as well. . . when they go home at night and they know that they've played a pretty good hockey game and didn't get the result.”
Again and again and again.