VANCOUVER – Shaken by a five-game losing streak, the culmination of a dreadful start that has imperilled more than their season, the Vancouver Canucks’ next four games against the Calgary Flames may be the only playoff games they see in 2021.
Lose the series and they’re out – of playoff contention anyway. Lose badly, and it’s possible general manager Jim Benning or coach Travis Green or both could be out of a job, swallowed by the crater created by a young team that has followed last summer’s breakthrough by losing 10 of its first 16 games in a pandemic-shortened season.
Incredibly, those 16 games were played over a span of just 27 days. When the team limped home from Toronto overnight Monday and awoke to an honest-to-goodness day off, it meant Tuesday was the first night since Jan. 11 that Vancouver players went to bed without having played and without a game the next day.
They practised Wednesday at Rogers Arena for Thursday night’s opener against the Flames.
It was the fourth time in four weeks the Canucks fully practised. Then they answered questions on Zoom, where they were hit with every conspiracy theory short of QAnon.
No, goalie Thatcher Demko said, the Canucks’ poor start is not because players were so upset at losing popular teammates in free agency last October that they’re playing badly – deliberately or accidentally.
No, captain Bo Horvat said, the lack of a contract extension for Green has not fuelled uncertainty among players or affected their buy-in for what the coach is preaching.
Yes, Green said, the debilitating schedule has been an issue.
“I think it's been brutal,” Green said. “It's a lot of games, 10 games on the road. We own the losses, though. I'm not saying that we deserve to win games that we haven't but I think the schedule has played a part of our start. It's probably cost us, I don't know, a point, two, three points. Who knows how many? But I think it's affected our group physically in a couple of ways.
“It's easy to say, well, you've played 16 games in 26 or 27 days. But the games wear you down, especially early in the year. We haven't had a chance to recover, some of our players, in those games. And I think we really missed the practice time. You work on your structure, your details, in practice. We've been trying to show it in video but you need to run through it, especially again, early in the season.
“We play a high-energy, direct game, and I think that's very structured. We want structure in our game, and we haven't been able to get to either as much as we'd like because of the schedule. Again, we own it, but it's also reality that we have had a heavy schedule.”
The Canucks, of course, agreed to the schedule that started with an inhumane 13 games in 21 nights – more than any other team. Considering they did this while trying to incorporate new players, remake their leadership group and reclaim their identity in the wake of the free-agency exodus, it’s impossible to overlook the schedule as a contributing factor.
But it’s not the lone gunman. There is no simple, singular explanation for how poorly the team has played, surrendering at least five goals in nine of 16 games, allowing a ghastly 3.94 goals per game while their young stars – the foundation of the rebuilt team – regress.
It’s a lot of things. But only one thing can save them now: winning.
The Canucks appeared to finally rediscover their identity Monday against the Maple Leafs. After losing four games in Montreal and Toronto by an aggregate score of 23-9, they dominated the formidable Leafs for two periods, outshooting them 27-7, before surrendering highly-preventable goals 11 seconds apart in the third period to lose 3-1.
Vancouver’s fractured form before that had been alarming. The team looked broken, which is why it was vital for the Canucks to display the urgency and engagement they did on Monday.
But now they’ve got to start winning. The bottom line is now the bottom line.
The fourth-worst team in the NHL by winning percentage, the Canucks are sixth in the Canadian division, a point behind the Flames, who have played four fewer games. The Leafs and Canadiens look unstoppable – except by each other – atop the division, but the Canucks have also lost touch with the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets and could soon see the Flames pass across the horizon in front of them. The teams play three games in Vancouver and, next Wednesday, one in Calgary.
“I think the most important thing is just sticking together,” Demko said. “When times get hard. . . human nature, it's easy to kind of start thinking about yourself and maybe get down on yourself, get down on the team. It's only natural to do that. But I think the teams that can pull through times like this are teams that stick together and stay confident in themselves and one another. I think we have a group that can do that. Guys care about each other.”
On the theory that these caring players have quit on their GM or coach, the goalie who possesses a psychology degree said: “I can shut that down, I think. I don't think that anyone is holding that against management or coach or whatever. Guys are focused on winning. They know that the business side of things is going to happen sometimes and guys are going to leave, get traded, sign somewhere else, what have you. Guys are well aware of that and they know that you you've got to move on and focus on the task at hand. Guys are trying to win.”
“When you lose five in a row. . . there's some urgency, there's probably some doubt,” Green said. “That's no secret; that's the way it is in sport. I've said it many times to our team that we play our best hockey when you play with confidence and you play with urgency. But inside our locker room, are the guys feeling full of confidence? Probably not. But the best way to get confidence back is go play your ass off and play hard.”