The Vancouver Canucks biggest failing on Saturday night was being unable to dictate which goalie would play against them.
So instead of getting Mike Smith or Carter Hart, who bestowed upon the Canucks gift goals in Edmonton and Philadelphia, Vancouver instead was left to face the Detroit Red Wings' Thomas Greiss.
Playing their third road game in four nights, less than 24 hours after beating the Philadelphia Flyers in a wild shootout, the Canucks dominated the Red Wings in the third period and outshot them 41-21 for the game but lost 3-1 because Greiss was very nearly unbeatable.
Wonderfully entertaining and consistent in providing a mountain of talking points whenever they play, the Canucks probably deserved more from the game and referees Mitch Dunning and Brian Pochmara (see below).
But they had enough scoring chances to dictate the outcome and make whatever the Wings or officials were doing irrelevant. The Canucks just couldn’t finish on Greiss, and Vancouver’s special teams were beaten 1-0 by Detroit as Filip Zadina scored what turned out to be the winning goal on a second-period power play.
Outshot 23-6 in the third period, the Wings clinched it with an empty-netter.
Welcome to hockey.
“No matter how many shots you think you got or how well you played, you don't always get the win,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said. “It's how you bounce back, it's how you come and try to win the next one and put this one behind you.”
The 1-1-1 Canucks get a rest day Sunday and equally important practice day Monday before continuing their National Hockey League season-opening road trip Tuesday in Buffalo.
THE GAME IN REVERSE
The biggest event was neither a goal nor any of Greiss’ saves, but a play at 11:05 of the third period when the Canucks' Conor Garland, who is five-foot-eight, shielded the puck by making a reverse hit on Zadina, who was reaching in and unprepared for contact and struck his head against Garland’s lower back.
The clinical term for the Red Wing team’s reaction to the play was “Cuckoo for Coco Puffs.” With Zadina down on the ice hurt -- one game after Detroit captain Dylan Larkin was stapled from behind by Tampa’s Mathieu Joseph -- the Wings’ roster swarmed Garland.
Referees Dunning and Pochmara initially signalled no penalty on Garland, but after the melee decided the Canuck should be assessed a major penalty, which allows a full video review. They watched the Zadina film like it was the Zapruder film, then reduced Garland’s penalty to a minor for an illegal check to the head and, with two roughing minors to Detroit and another to Vancouver, the teams continued at even strength.
Since Canucks coach Travis Green and Red Wings bench boss Jeff Blashill both yelled at the referees, we’re guessing Pochmara and Dunning fairly adjudicated the incident. It was what came later that was dangerous.
Unsatisfied with the referees’ interpretation, the Wings spent most of the final nine minutes attacking Garland and leaving Greiss alone to deal with the other 19 Canucks.
Robbi Fabbri slashed Garland with impunity as the Red Wings' Lucas Raymond was being called for holding, and at the start of another shift, Detroit’s Adam Erne appeared to whack the Canuck in the face a soon as the puck was dropped.
“I don't know how that's not a penalty,” Green, who rarely wades into officiating in his post-game comments, told reporters on Zoom.
The NHL long ago eliminated the quaint notion of players policing themselves, and seized control of all matters of conduct and discipline. It is the referees’ job to protect players, and they clearly left Garland at risk. Zadina went to the dressing room but finished the game.
Even before the Detroit dustup, Garland was at the centre of everything. He scored the Canucks’ only goal, beating Greiss from an acute angle to tie it 1-1 at 4:56 of the second period. Garland skated miles, most of them seemingly during one sortie against Danny DeKeyser, who was turned in circles so many times by the puck-carrying Canuck that the Wings defenceman may have sought to pin a tail on a donkey. And Garland was engaged physically, even stepping in on behalf of teammate Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who was being mauled by heavyweight Givani Smith after the Canuck knocked over Nick Leddy in the first period.
“It's a big part of his game; he's a competitive guy,” Green said of Garland. “Competitive guys go to hard places and they get involved around the puck and do whatever it takes to win. You can't have enough players that are ultra-competitive, and that's what we look for in players.”
For the record, Garland’s description of his hit on Zadina included this: “I kind of hit the brakes trying to create space. I know there's a guy behind me. He skated into my back. I grabbed the puck, I stopped and, like I said, I got a penalty for a hit to the head.”
Of the retribution he faced during his only three shifts that followed, Garland said: “They thought it was a bad hit or whatever, you want to stick up for your teammates. It is what it is. That's what happens. I've been hit like that and my team has gone after somebody. Somebody on our team got hit like that, I'm sure we'd expect the same thing.”
It’s become a cliché -- the chance for new teammates to bond by starting the season on the road -- but the Canucks do look like a closer, more cohesive group after their three games in four nights, including back-to-back contests in hostile environments.
“Everybody had each other's back out there tonight,” Horvat said. “No matter what the costs, we're going to have each other's back during the game and I thought we did a good job of that tonight. Obviously, things got heated in the third, and we kept our foot down. Again, we've got to find ways to put the puck in the net to get those wins.”
PK NOT OK
It was an issue even before training camp, became a bigger one with Tyler Motte injured and neither Brandon Sutter nor Travis Hamonic appearing for the pre-season, and could reach a crisis point soon. The Canucks must find a way to kill penalties or find another player or two who can.
All things considered, the team has been pretty impressive through nine periods, two overtimes and two shootouts. But the Canucks have started the season by allowing three power-play goals on seven disadvantages. This followed a seven-game pre-season in which they went just 22-for-32 shorthanded -- a .688 kill rate.
The Canucks' discipline in the first week of the season has been excellent, but their success rate shorthanded is not survivable.