VANCOUVER – Suddenly and unexpectedly back in the game Saturday and with a chance to save a series and restore some confidence, the Vancouver Canucks used all the hard lessons learned from a difficult start to the season and, naturally, applied none of them.
They made the same big mistakes – mistakes you can’t overcome -- to get another discouraging result, losing 5-2 to the Montreal Canadiens at Rogers Arena to fall three games below .500 for the first time since March 26, 2019.
Seven games into the National Hockey League season, it’s hard to say if the Canucks are good enough to compete in the Canadian division because all they’ve done so far is beat themselves.
They are 2-5-0, allowed the Canadiens to light them up with 17 goals in three games, and continue to get net-negative play from some of their top skaters.
On Saturday, after impressively rallying from a 2-0 deficit on third-period goals 2.5 minutes apart from Elias Pettersson and Nils Hoglander, the Canucks again reached for the self-destruct button by allowing Brendan Gallagher to score on a two-on-one at 9:07 and Jonathan Drouin on a breakaway at 12:44.
Gallagher scored after Quinn Hughes, Vancouver’s No. 1 defenceman, bounced a pass off teammate Bo Horvat for a turnover at the Canucks’ blue line. Drouin scored when J.T. Miller, Vancouver's top winger and a team leader, had his lateral pass intercepted under pressure inside the Canadiens’ blue line.
It was the cliché incarnate: snatching another loss from the jaws of victory.
“The third and fourth goals are just turnovers,” Miller said. “On mine, I know I'm in a vulnerable spot there (and I) try to make something out of nothing. It was a good shift, too, and I give them a breakaway. Stuff like that.
“We talked a lot about raising our compete level and I felt we did that for pretty much the whole game. We're just finding a way to kind of shoot ourselves in the foot and give them too many easy ones right now. It's making it hard on our goalies, for sure. I feel like we're giving up so many breakaways and great Grade-A (scoring chances) a game.”
The great Canadiens giveaway transpired less than 48 hours after Canuck coach Travis Green blistered his team for the turnovers it committed in Thursday’s 7-3 embarrassment against Montreal.
Late in the second period Saturday, Pettersson fell over and lost the puck, creating a breakaway for Jesperi Kotkaniemi that Canuck goalie Braden Holtby actually stopped. Earlier, Hughes, last season’s Calder Trophy runner-up, skated the puck into a turnover in the neutral zone, giving the Canadiens an outnumbered rush that ended with Jake Evans hitting the post shorthanded.
Pettersson and Hughes are the Canucks’ best players, albeit still just learning at 22- and 21-years-old, respectively. Miller is in the top five on the team.
If you made a list of the 10 best Canucks, the top half of the team, it’s possible the only guys playing to expectations are captain Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser.
No team can win the way the Canucks are playing. The Canucks aren’t even close to winning making the mistakes they are.
“Guys could be forcing a little bit,” Green said Saturday after buying time to compose himself post-game by sending Hughes, Pettersson, Miller and Holtby to face reporters first. “We talked about it today, before the game, about taking unnecessary risks when you don't have to. I think that's part of puck management. Part of decision making is not only when you have the puck, but when you don't have it -- what position on the ice (are you) as far as stepping up and not stepping up.”
Later, Green said: “I think, you know, your veteran guys need to be the ones that are composed and you make those type of (good) reads. And I think there's been times where we've pushed too hard, and it's cost us. I think tonight was just a case of we made a couple mistakes and when you turn the puck over, there's usually a scoring chance.”
This is easily the most difficult stretch Pettersson and Hughes have encountered during their short NHL careers. The team started 9-3-2 last season, building enough confidence and points in the standings to survive the brief losing spells that occurred later on – and in every season.
The year before, when Pettersson won the Calder Trophy, the Canucks started 10-6-1.
“I think we're trying to figure everything out right now,” Hughes said Saturday. “I saw (on) the scoreboard at the end that we're giving up the most goals in the league right now per game. Obviously, that's not something that we aim for. Especially as defencemen, I think we’ve got to take onus on that and ... as a team, we’ve just got to be better.”
Green said after Thursday’s debacle that there is “immaturity” at times in the Canucks, explaining that it is as hard to win each season as it was the previous one, and suggesting his young team may not have been ready for the challenge of following up last summer’s playoff breakthrough.
Pettersson’s deflection goal on Saturday was his first of the season and ended his longest NHL points drought at five games.
“It was great to get one today,” he said, “But I'm more concerned about us winning games. We have five losses now in seven games. A lot of stuff to work on. As for not contributing or making plays or creating scoring chances, I've got to be better with the puck and not turn it over, and just play better defence.
“We know it's a hard league, the best league in the world. We know how hard it is to win. We definitely need to work on some things to be more successful. We know what we're capable of, it's just finding it.”
Soon, they hope.