With a 56-game schedule, Canadian division and global pandemic, we knew this would be an extraordinary season for the Vancouver Canucks.
But no one would have guessed that after four games Elias Pettersson would have more penalties (two) than points (one). Or that a power-play that was fourth in the National Hockey League last season would begin this one 0-for-15. Or that goaltending, always the biggest question heading into 2021, would be the least of Vancouver’s problems.
Monday in Calgary, the team followed its best period of the season with its worst and was handily beaten for a third straight game, 5-2 by the Calgary Flames, to stumble home from a four-game road trip at 1-3.
The Montreal Canadiens, who look at least as good as the Flames, roar into Vancouver for three games in four days starting Wednesday at Rogers Arena.
This condensed season has accurately been called a sprint. No one will have time to catch up in the standings if they fully face-plant and lose five or six in a row. The deficit will look large in a hurry if Vancouver doesn’t fix its problems this week.
The Canucks outshot the Flames 16-4 in the first period on Monday, when Vancouver forward Adam Gaudette had more shots and scoring chances than the entire Calgary team. But former Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom kept the Flames in it, down only 1-0 instead of by three or four goals, and Calgary just took over the game in the second period.
Vancouver imploded with four straight penalties while surrendering three straight goals and was outshot 20-3 in the middle frame. That was a 33-shot turnaround from the first period. That doesn’t make sense. Neither has the Canucks’ start to the season.
“Things aren’t going your way, it’s a little bit easy to get negative,” goalie Thatcher Demko said after allowing four goals on 32 shots. “But in this type of season when the games are so quick, you don’t have time to get down on yourself. You’ve got to flip the page and get back at it. We’ll focus on this Montreal series.”
Pettersson’s start to the season was perfectly encapsulated by the television shot of him sitting in the penalty box late in the second period, his head down. He looked condemned.
The Canucks' most gifted offensive player, one of the best forwards in the NHL, Pettersson has no goals and one assist through four games and the Canucks have been outshot 39-24 at even strength with him on the ice.
His frustration was evident Monday when after a dodgy holding call against him earlier in the period, Pettersson whacked Flames centre Sean Monohan across the clavicle with his stick at 18:14 of the middle frame.
When veteran defenceman Tyler Myers punched Matthew Thachuk in the head after a whistle to put the Canucks two men down, the Flames’ sizzling power play made it 3-1 on an Elias Lindholm one-timer with less than two seconds remaining in the period.
“I don’t know what happened in the second period, but I took two dumb penalties,” Pettersson said. “It’s not acceptable. They get momentum, they get on the power play. When we’re not playing our best hockey... we’ve got to find a way to get back to our game.
“I was just disappointed in myself, letting the team down, taking another stupid penalty. And they scored another goal. I was just disappointed in myself for being selfish -- letting my frustration take another dumb penalty. It’s not going to happen again.”
SPECIAL TEAM PROBLEMS
Not only is the power play a dismal 0-for-15 so far, but Canucks penalty killers have surrendered seven goals on 21 disadvantages through four games. Those are both NHL-worst figures.
“First period was maybe our best period of the year so far, and we responded in the second not very well,” Myers said. “We know teams are going to give us a push... but we can’t drop down as far as we did.
“I can’t take that penalty that I took. There are a few others we can’t be taking either. But outside of the penalties, it was almost like we forgot how we played in the first. We kept it very simple in the first. We played the exact type of hockey we want to play: quick ups, get pucks in and get in our forecheck. We got away from it for whatever reason and we’re going to have to address it.”
A SHORT HOP
The J.T. Miller Effect lasted one period. The Canucks’ leading scorer from last season made his 2021 debut after a sooner-than-expected return from COVID-19 protocol as a close contact to teammate Jordie Benn, who spent the entire road trip quarantined in Vancouver.
Miller’s first period was the Canucks’ best of the season and even the power play looked dangerous while failing to score on two early opportunities. But an ineffective Vancouver power play early in the second fed Calgary momentum and Miller finished his first game without a shot on net in 18:31 of ice time.
“We’ve just got to be better pros,” Miller said. “We get paid a lot of money to do this. We’ve got to be ready to play 60 minutes or as close to that as possible. We just have to evaluate our game honestly and go from there.
“It isn’t the start we wanted. We know that.”