Canucks face seemingly impossible task after latest blow to playoff hopes

Elias Pettersson scored twice but it wasn't enough as the Vancouver Canucks fell 4-3 to the St. Louis Blues.

VANCOUVER – The worst thing the Vancouver Canucks can be these days — besides where they are in the standings — is good at math.

The calculations are as simple as they are dispiriting. The desperate National Hockey League team needed the equivalent of at least 11 wins from its final 14 games to make the Stanley Cup playoffs. Then in the latest game-of-the-season, they went out Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues and lost 4-3 on home ice.

The Canucks blew a late second-period lead on awful special-teams execution, then managed one shot on net in the first 10 minutes of the third period before a late goal by Elias Pettersson got Vancouver within one. But no closer.

The Blues are one of the teams the Canucks are trying, were trying, to catch in the Western Conference. But St. Louis just beat Vancouver twice in a row, and swept all three games against the Canucks this season.

And in case things weren’t bleak enough, Vancouver also lost captain Bo Horvat after the first period to what the team is calling a non-COVID illness.

This all leaves the Canucks with the seemingly impossible task of needing to go probably 11-2 or better over their final 13 games, starting Sunday with the first of two consecutive contests against the Vegas Golden Knights, another team Vancouver must catch.

The Canucks’ best 13-game stretch this season is 10-2-1. It was in December.

“I wouldn’t say hopeless,” defenceman Luke Schenn said Wednesday. “It looks like a lot and a big task when you look at the big picture. But you focus on the next game. Vegas is obviously a team that is right ahead of us. That's a huge game coming on Sunday, so we look forward to that one and go from there. Really, all you can do is take it one at a time. Obviously, you need some bounces and some luck along the way in terms of watching around the league.”

The Canucks aren’t getting much of that either, as the final playoff spot in the West before Wednesday’s schedule was projected to need 97 points by the end of the regular season.

The 32-28-9 Canucks are stuck at 73 points. After a noble three-month sprint back towards the playoff pack under coach Bruce Boudreau, the team has won just three of its last 11 games.

“You can’t think about ‘we need (to win) this amount of games,’” Pettersson said. “You've just got to try win the next game. That's what we can do.”

Pettersson scored twice on Wednesday, once intentionally and once when Conor Garland’s shot ticked him on its way to the net at 15:11 of the third period. But it was also Pettersson’s turnover on the power play that turned the game in less than two minutes later in the second period.

With a chance to build on a 2-1 lead, the Canucks went on the power play at 14:20. But a minute into it, Pettersson lost the puck on a solo dash into the Blues’ zone, catching teammate Quinn Hughes slightly flat-footed and allowing Robert Thomas to burst in on a shorthanded breakaway and bury the tying goal past goalie Thatcher Demko at 15:29.

Near the end of the same power play, Canucks rookie Vasily Podkolzin took a holding penalty, and the Blues’ fourth-ranked power play quickly torched Vancouver. Ryan O’Reilly made it 3-2 at 17:16, scoring from the low slot with penalty-killer Brad Richardson standing close enough to smell the Blue’s aftershave but not intervening on the play.

Nathan Walker made it 4-2 at 9:29 of the third period, before Garland shot it in off Pettersson. Tanner Pearson had the best chance to tie the game, but was stuffed point-blank by St. Louis goalie Ville Husso with Demko on the bench for a sixth skater.

But, really, the result was all about that special-teams disaster.

“We got the 2-1 goal there in the second period, and then I tried to make a play, made a turnover on the power play,” Pettersson said. “They scored on the breakaway, got momentum, they scored on the power play. So then we're chasing the game again. Mistakes like that can't happen. I've just got to do a better play; I can't just turn it over.”

When Canucks penalty killing, historically bad at the start of the season and ranked last for most of it, finally inched into 31st place during Monday’s 4-1 loss in St. Louis, there was some mock celebration in Vancouver. But given one chance to fail on Wednesday, the penalty kill did.

And Vancouver’s power play, which has been much better since Boudreau took over as coach in December, is still only 16th in the NHL and has been marked by inconsistency.

When the game was being decided Wednesday, Horvat was in the medical room. He has been on the Canucks’ top power-play unit all season and is also a key penalty-killer and faceoff ace.

Horvat was missed.

“Absolutely,” Pettersson said. “I mean, he's our captain. Of course, he's got a big role in this team, and of course we missed him today. We wish we had him out there.”

Wednesday was the Canucks’ fifth game in eight nights, in five cities against opponents that look playoff bound. They were terrific in the first three, but weren’t close to their best in the games against the Blues.

“If we're not at our best, you know, we're not winning games,” Schenn said. “We need to play a full 60 minutes. We're not a team that typically puts up a tonne of offence, (so) we need to play the right way and keep goals out of our net. We need everyone going.”

Instead of going, they look gone.

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