Canucks’ lack of game-breakers clearly visible against McDavid, Oilers

Travis Green talks about how Elias Pettersson’s absence has impact the Vancouver Canucks.

VANCOUVER — Auston Matthews is great, but Connor McDavid is better. Just ask the Vancouver Canucks.

After getting bullied by Matthews on Saturday, what was left of the Canucks was exploited on Monday by McDavid, who seems in a hurry to get to an historic 100 points in the National Hockey League’s pandemic season.

The Edmonton Oilers superstar, who started 13 points shy of an unthinkable century with seven of 56 games to go, popped up only when it mattered with two goals and two assists in a 5-3 victory over the exhausted Canucks.

McDavid’s ability to flex and generate goals felt like piling on after Canucks coach Travis Green conceded Monday morning that the mysterious injury to Elias Pettersson has left Vancouver without a game-breaker.

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Matthews, who might have been chasing 50 goals in the abbreviated season had he not played a bunch of games with a wrist injury – and missed four games entirely – snatched two goals in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-1 win on Saturday.

“I thought we played a very strong two periods and a game-breaker gets two goals, and you miss that,” Green told reporters when asked for a Matthews-Pettersson comparison. “It’s not an excuse but I’m not going to sit here and say we don’t miss that in our lineup. They’re difference-makers, they create chances, they alleviate pressure easily, not just in the offensive zone but in your own zone. But we can’t dwell on that and we haven’t been.”

And then McDavid glides into town and it’s impossible not to again note the disparity in game-breakers.

J.T. Miller tries to carry the Canucks on his back, Brock Boeser can finish, Bo Horvat leads by example. But Vancouver has no one up front capable of turning a game or conjuring a goal like Pettersson, who has been out since March 2 with a reported wrist injury that was initially supposed to be a day-to-day issue.

Depending on your accounting methods, the Canucks were missing eight or nine forwards on Monday.

The bottom half of their forwards group is filled with pop-guns like Jimmy Vesey (zero points in 10 games as a Canuck), Travis Boyd (zero in nine), Matthew Highmore (none in eight), Jayce Hawryluk (one goal in 19) and Zack MacEwen (one goal in 26). The injured players they’ve replaced include Antoine Roussel (one goal in 35 games) and Jay Beagle (one in 30).

You can imagine then the challenge for Green to replace Pettersson, whose place in the top six has essentially be filled the last three games by minor-league call-up Kole Lind. Rookie Nils Hoglander (one point in his last seven games) has been in the top six all season after the Canucks somehow allowed winger Tyler Toffoli to sign a bargain free-agent contract in Montreal, where he has 28 goals in 48 games this season.

Miller and Boeser had combined for 28 goals until each added one more on Monday. But Miller’s pretty breakaway goal from Darnell Nurse’s giveaway was only the Canuck’s third in 12 games. And Boeser scored for the second time in 11.

Although McDavid is extraordinary, the game followed what has become a dispiriting pattern for the Canucks, who have lost six of seven after emerging from April’s COVID-19 crisis with a pair of unlikely wins.

The Canucks competed and skated at the start against the Oilers, then appeared to stall as they managed only six shots in 35 minutes before a modest flurry at the end.

But Vancouver was outgunned and never looked in danger of winning after Tyson Barrie skated free from Canuck winger Tanner Pearson after a faceoff and swatted a puck under goalie Braden Holtby to break a 1-1 tie just 18 seconds into the middle period.

McDavid got the second assist on that goal after setting up Jesse Puljujarvi for the opener at 3:41 of the first after a turnover by Vancouver defenceman Nate Schmidt.

McDavid scored unassisted to make it 3-1 at 16:33 of the second period after Bo Horvat mishandled a pass in the neutral zone, and added another into an empty net with one minute remaining in the third.

Schmidt had the other goal for the Canucks, who made the game appear closer than it was when Boeser wristed past Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen after a faceoff win by Horvat while Vancouver skated six-against-five late in the third.

“Against a team like this, especially against a line like that (McDavid, Puljujarvi and Leon Draisaitl) that’s going really well, turnovers will kill you,” Schmidt said. “Give good players time and space and they’re going to make plays. It’s been hard the last couple of games but you’ve got to find a way to win. You’ve got to find a way to win these ones.”

Having just begun a forced duck walk of 11 games in the final 17 days of the season, the Canucks will get another chance to play McDavid on Tuesday. And then again on Thursday and Saturday in Edmonton.

“I don’t think effort’s really our issue,” Miller said. “I feel like we work hard every game. We’ve had the injury problem lately, a lot of new faces, (but) it’s no excuse, we want to win. We’re not playing bad, we’re doing good things. But we need to do more if we want to win against these teams. These guys … are playoff-ready and these games are hard.”

And not likely to get easier.

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