Canucks embark on another road trip seeking more than just silver linings

Vancouver Canucks centre Elias Pettersson (40) celebrate his goal with teammates Quinn Hughes (43) and J.T. Miller (9). (Nathan Denette/CP)

VANCOUVER – The Silver Linings Playbook was a hit at the box office, but it’s not showing so well for the Vancouver Canucks.

The National Hockey League team has had a handful of silver linings while losing games the last month. But the reason these moral victories don't get any attention is because the Canucks have been a colossal flop in the big picture.

They were solid on their three-game homestand, which ended Sunday with a 1-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in a game in which Vancouver outshot the visitors 40-24 and should have won by a couple of goals. Before that, the Canucks beat the Winnipeg Jets, and they were leading the mighty Colorado Avalanche in the third period the game before when Vancouver self-destructed with penalties and its inability to kill them.

Three good games. One win.

And now they head back on to the road, where they were crushed earlier in November, to open a five-game trip Wednesday against the suddenly-hot Pittsburgh Penguins, who just swept their own three-game roadie by an aggregate score of 11-1.

Some kind of moral victory feels more likely than a real one, but it’s exclusively the latter the Canucks need after winning just six of their first 19 games.

Silver linings are for losing teams.

“I liked a lot of our game the last three games at home, but didn't like that we didn't win,” coach Travis Green said Tuesday on a Zoom call with reporters after the Canucks practised in Pittsburgh. “Our whole focus right now is, individually, we need to play our best. If we get individuals to play their best, collectively we're going to be a lot better as a group. We've got to find ways to win hockey games.”

It’s not just that the Canucks have as many individuals not at their best as they have players who are that is the problem for Vancouver, but that several of their foundational players are foundering.

When the season started, it was inconceivable that Elias Pettersson could go into Game 20 still looking for his first even-strength goal, or that Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat – three of the team’s top-four forwards – would combine for a single assist in their last six games.

This disappearance of top players neatly encompasses the last, alarming road trip, which brought the Canucks into crisis, and the unsatisfactory homestand that followed and did little to quell the unrest among unhappy fans.

Yes, there are the silver linings: J.T. Miller’s determination to keep scoring and driving the team while the search continues for missing teammates, the play of newcomers Conor Garland and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, defenceman Quinn Hughes and goalie Thatcher Demko, even faint glimmers of improving special teams.

But as the Canucks have proved: this isn’t nearly enough.

“I go back to this a lot -- being honest with your group,” Green said. “We're not sitting there sugar-coating things. Confidence can come in different ways. Having inner belief in yourself is a big part of it, and being excited to face tough challenges is part of confidence, too.

"When you're a good player in this league, you've got to have a good belief in yourself. And when things aren't going well, you face it and look it in the mirror and dig in. We need to work. If you work, it's easy to be confident. When you work extremely hard, confidence comes from that. And it doesn't have to be necessarily scoring or highlight-reel goals. It's just playing well and playing hard and playing for the team to win. And that's a good start for getting confidence back if you don't have it.”

Green will have to deal again with the absence on the road of second-pair defenceman Travis Hamonic, ineligible to cross the border until 14 days have passed since his second COVID-19 vaccination.

Hamonic, who returned to the Canucks at the end of October, is expected to join the team before the road trip ends. Green may have the option Wednesday of using rugged defenceman Luke Schenn, who suffered a lower-body injury on Nov. 5.

The path ahead for the Canucks is daunting.

Already seven points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, and with the Pacific Division looking much stronger than many experts predicted, the Canucks probably need the points equivalent of at least 41 wins from their final 63 games.

After Pittsburgh, they play games in Columbus and Boston before crossing the border to finish the trip in Montreal and Ottawa.

“Everyone knows where we are,” Hughes said. “At the same time, we can't look at (the standings) and get down and feel sorry for yourself. You just have to think positively and just worry about what you can control, and that's the next game. Try to get this next game and then take it from there.”

“Be ready to go tomorrow,” Green said. “I think, individually, our players need to bring their best game. Collectively, that goes a long way when everyone's on top of their game. We're playing a team that's been trying to win a Cup here for while and has got a few already. And it's going to be a tough game, but it's a good place to start on the road.”

If it is, Pittsburgh will be the first good place the Canucks have found.

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