The only way for the Vancouver Canucks to escape last season and prove they’re better than the team that crashed to the bottom of the standings is to be better than that team – be better versions of themselves as players.
For the first three games of this season, they were. Even in Saturday’s loss in Detroit, the Canucks largely dominated the Red Wings, badly outplaying and outchancing them only to lose on cold shooting and a hot goalie.
But there was nothing redeeming about losing 5-2 Tuesday to the Buffalo Sabres. The only commitment they showed was a determination to lose: the Canucks followed two mediocre periods with one awful one.
They led 2-1 through 37 minutes, and as careless and physically unengaged as the Canucks were, they remained tied 2-2 going into the third period. Tied on the road against what was the worst team in the National Hockey League last season. Play one good period, take the two points and run.
Instead, the Canucks surrendered easy goals 23 seconds apart early in the third period to Jeff Skinner and Tage Thompson, who may as well have been awaiting ice cream cones instead of rebounds as they waited in the low slot, so pleasant and unthreatening the space in front of goalie Thatcher Demko.
Having opened their six-game trip to start the season by taking three of four points against the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers, the Canucks got nothing from the Red Wings or Sabres.
Those two teams combined last season for 34 wins, a sum exceeded by each of the NHL’s top nine teams. The Canucks, of course, won only 23 times in 56 games. But they won’t win even that many in 82 games this season if they play like they did in Buffalo: reckless with the puck, slack defensively without it, inert on the power play and just generally slow and passive.
No wonder, with 78 games remaining, coach Travis Green staged on his post-game Zoom call what amounted to an intervention or at least a challenge.
“I don't think we were good enough to win tonight -- flat out,” Green told reporters. “I don't think we paid a big enough price to win. I thought it was a real fast game, back and forth. Both teams were kind of playing a run-and-gun game (but) I wouldn't classify our team as a run-and-gun type of team. We've got some guys that can make some plays, obviously, off the rush. But. . . if we're going to try to play that game every night, we're going to be in trouble.
“When I look at the sheet at the end of the night, I think we have nine forwards that don't have a blocked shot, eight that don't have a hit. I've got to think we didn't pay a big enough price to win tonight.”
Green’s blunt assessment felt even rawer for the brevity and gritty sound quality of his press conference.
He was far more direct on Zoom than his players were on the ice.
“I think we skated at times hard,” he continued. “But like I said, there's effort to play a nice fast game, and then there's effort that's hard and takes bearing down. There's hard areas in the rink you have to play well in, and we didn't do that.
“I thought there were times in our own zone, we got pucks and just threw them away. You've got to take responsibility. If you can't play with the puck in this league, it's a hard league to play in. We've talked to our group about that.”
Brock Boeser returned to the Canuck lineup for the first time since a mystery injury nearly three weeks ago ended his pre-season and cost him the first three games that counted. But the departure of top defenceman Quinn Hughes more than offset Boeser’s return and continued a theme of absenteeism that has existed since Vancouver’s training camp began.
Beyond having a handful of injuries, the Canucks played most of the pre-season without Hughes and Elias Pettersson, who finally signed new contracts on Oct. 3. And now Hughes is hurt and Pettersson is stuck on one goal and one even-strength point through four games.
Green said Hughes “was close to playing tonight. I don't expect him to be out long -- if at all -- next game.”
With Hughes’ undisclosed injury pushing skilful rookie Jack Rathbone farther up the lineup, Green also decided to remove Kyle Burroughs from the defence to allow veterans Brad Hunt and Luke Schenn to get their first games.
Both struggled, although they had lots of company.
Bo Horvat and Justin Dowling scored for Vancouver, the latter on a re-made third line centred by J.T. Miller. Demko faced 42 shots, tailored a slow rebound for Skinner on the tie-breaker at 3:33 of the third period and got twisted trying and failing to keep the puck out on Thompson’s goal at 5:56.
Last in the NHL last season, the Sabres are 3-0 for the first time since 2009. The Canucks, on Tuesday at least, merely looked like the 2020-21 version.
“I think we have to play with urgency each and every game,” Boeser said, pointless in 19:09 of ice time but with three shots on target. “We've all said that we weren't happy with last year, so it's definitely frustrating to start like this.”
One of the newcomers, Dowling said: “I wouldn't say it's concerning. We've got a lot of new faces in the room; we're still trying to learn each other's tendencies on the ice. It's not going to be the smoothest of transitions. But I think one thing that should be there is effort and the will to battle. I think we kind of lost that tonight.”
The Canucks visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday before ending their opening odyssey Saturday in Seattle where the expansion Kraken play their inaugural home game.