VANCOUVER – Having motored close enough for the Montreal Canadiens to see them in their rear-view mirror, the Vancouver Canucks reached for the passing gear Wednesday night but instead shifted into reverse.
They blew the transmission, set the engine on fire and were last seen watching their ride burn while standing forlornly at the shoulder of the road wishing that at least they’d remembered to empty the change tray.
And, no, the Canadiens did not stop to help them. They zoomed onwards towards the horizon, honking and laughing all the way.
With a chance to move within a point of the Canadiens’ back bumper in the North Division standings – setting aside all the games in-hand Montreal has – the Canucks played a lemon, losing 5-1 at Rogers Arena in easily Vancouver’s worst game in more than a month.
The score was unfair; Montreal could have amassed 10 goals, out-chancing Vancouver 38-11 at even strength but getting robbed numerous times by Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko.
Let’s just say it was awful. In the first six minutes of the game, played almost entirely in their zone, the Canucks iced the puck three times, gave it away at least that often, and possessed it across the Canadiens’ blue line for exactly three seconds – just long enough for Brock Boeser to make a bad pass.
This was a recurring theme for Boeser and the Canucks. The next 54 minutes weren’t much better for Vancouver fans, except those who love great goaltending above all else.
The Canadiens were flying. The Canucks were skating in almond butter. Ever try to get that goop off a knife blade or skate blades?
Travis Green distilled his team’s performance down to two words, and neither started with an F: “Very poor.”
Green then added more words: “We just had a lot of players that didn’t play very well. You've got to be able to make a pass, you've got to be able to move your feet. I thought the first period, we looked extremely slow. And I didn't think we passed the puck well all night. We had simple passes that you should be able to make at any given time that we didn't execute.”
Well, a turnover is kind of a pass. It just goes to the other team. The Canucks had plenty of those.
The performance was jolting, coming after Vancouver’s first three-game winning streak since January.
Ordinarily, we’d call it an outlier, maybe even give the Canucks a pass because they’d actually been playing well – far better than their record showed – the previous 14 games. They’d had only one poor night during that time: a 5-2 loss in Winnipeg nine days ago.
But the unsettling part of Wednesday’s loss, and why we can’t just dismiss it, is that it was uncomfortably similar to a bunch of the Canucks’ worst games during the first four weeks of the season when the team was so careless as to be uncompetitive.
They didn’t manage the puck, didn’t take zone exits when they could, didn’t play with speed or directness, gave up a freighter of Grade-A scoring chances, including breakaways, got little from their best players and took too many penalties. The only difference on Wednesday was Demko.
This is why the Canucks’ home game Saturday against the soaring Edmonton Oilers, who have been trampling everyone in the Canadian division except the Toronto Maple Leafs since January, already feels like a kind of truth serum.
Has the Canucks' rally from their 6-11-0 start ended already? Are they reverting to that team, or was Wednesday a one-off and the Canucks will return to sound, smart hockey and keep fighting their way back towards the playoff race?
“I think every team is going to have games like that,” Demko said after making 40 saves in a loss when he was probably the best player on either team. “We strung a couple wins together there, and we had an off-night tonight. But now it's our job to make sure that we get back to the way that we were playing the last few games before this one, and make sure that we don't string a couple losses together. So it's our job to get back into the win column and give a solid effort against Edmonton.”
Top centre Elias Pettersson, however, will miss his fifth game on Saturday with an undisclosed injury. His linemates, Boeser and J.T. Miller, were as poor as anyone on Wednesday.
Boeser’s shots-for percentage was 15.4 (4-22) and his expected-goals-for was 6.7 per cent. (No, there isn’t a digit missing before the decimal). Miller’s Corsi was 19.4 per cent (6-25) and xGF was 21.7 per cent.
"They came out hungrier right from the start and they outworked us tonight," Boeser said. "That's all there was to it. I think everyone in the room can say they're not happy with that performance. We know how we can play and we have expectations to play a lot better than that, and we know our standard. You know that's unacceptable."
Boeser scored the Canucks’ goal during a second-period power play. The Canucks trailed only 1-0 after the first period despite being outshot 16-4, and were still in the game, down 3-1, before Jeff Petry and Phillip Danault scored goals seven minutes apart near the middle of the third period.
“Am I surprised we didn't play well?” Green said. “Yeah, I am a little bit. But you're going to have games in the NHL where you don't play well. Just because you play well for four or five weeks, every game is a new game. You're going to have stinkers. It's by no means an excuse. We had too many players not play well and we're not a team that can bring a C- or D-game (and win). Not many teams in the NHL are. We deserved exactly what we got tonight.”
They’re empowered to earn something better on Saturday.