Six weeks into the Bruce Boudreau era with the Vancouver Canucks, all the ideals the coach values about how his team should play were on display Saturday in North Carolina.
There was speed and aggressiveness, the suffocating pressure, the constant strength around the puck and ability to manufacture offence with good defence. Unfortunately for Canucks fans, it was by the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Canucks displayed some of those traits, too, but stumbled again on special teams and failed to convert enough of the good chances they created as they lost 4-1 to the Hurricanes, a 25-win team that had extra motivation – apart from trying to win a Stanley Cup – after embarrassing itself in a 6-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday.
Vancouver vs. Columbus would be a fair fight. But on their joyless trudge through the Southeast, the Canucks have been outclassed against the Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.
Those three teams top the National Hockey League standings with an aggregate record Saturday afternoon of 75-24-12. At home, they’re 45-11-4, which means a visiting team manages to scavenge a point or two only once every four games.
Against those three, the Canucks are 0-3.
It took Vancouver all of December to push back to the fringes of the playoff race in the Western Conference, but just three losses in four games to lose touch again with the final wild-card spot. They will be eight points out if the San Jose Sharks win Saturday night.
“We can't let it slip away,” captain Bo Horvat, the lone Canuck goal-scorer, said after the matinee loss. “Obviously, it feels like that right now because we're not winning games. But I think that's just going to bring out the best in us. I mean, if we're going to compete for a playoff spot and come out of this, this is a good test for us.
“It hasn't gone the way we wanted here to start. But we've got to dig deeper and have some character in our room. It's just going to make us better in the end, winning this next game here and just moving on from there.”
PER CHANCE TO GO 0-4
The fourth game of the Canucks’ trip is another day game, on Sunday, and would appear to be the most winnable as the Washington Capitals had lost four straight before beating the struggling New York Islanders 2-0 on Saturday.
But it will be Vancouver’s third road game in three-and-a-half days and Canuck goalie Thatcher Demko is likely to start less than 24 hours after facing 33 shots from the Hurricanes.
Demko was the surprise starter in Carolina when backup Jaroslav Halak went into COVID-19 protocol shortly before the warmup. Saturday was scheduled to be a work day for Demko. The All-Star-Game-bound goalie had a rigorous practice at 9 a.m. ET, only to get back to the rink a short time later and learn he’d be starting at 1 p.m. ET.
“When you get those curveballs -- and there was another player that also tested positive, then he tested negative so he was allowed to play -- it sort of throws off all your prep,” Boudreau said. “The players, all they're doing is talking about it, worrying about whether it's them next ... what's going to happen, we're in the States, blah-blah-blah. It's not something you really like before the game, when you're supposed to be focussing on only one thing.”
Minor-league goalie Spencer Martin, whose three career NHL appearances were five years ago with the Colorado Avalanche, backed up Saturday after being activated from the taxi squad.
Boudreau said he’d have no worries playing Demko back-to-back this weekend.
For the second straight game, the sudden slump of the Canucks’ power play was a major factor as it went 0-for-5 and generated only five shots in 10 minutes of advantages. It is 0-for-12 on the road trip. The Hurricanes went 1-for-2 in 2:38 of advantage time. Incredibly, Carolina has killed 35 straight disadvantages.
“On this trip, I think it has let us down a little bit,” Boudreau said. “Five-on-five, we're holding our own. But one of the keys to today was your special teams had to be special. And all three of these games, they haven't been special. They were really good before the pause (Jan. 2-10) and we've got to get back to that, and we've got to get back to that in hurry. Those are the things win you games. In a 3-2 league, if you can get two goals 5-on-5 per game, and you get that power-play goal, it's the difference. And these three games we haven't been able to get it.”
After Thursday’s 4-2 loss in Tampa, Boudreau said it was his fault for putting the same players out during four fruitless power plays. On Saturday, however, his only change was restoring Tanner Pearson as the net-front jammer on PP1 instead of Elias Pettersson, and the coach’s only mid-game adjustment to the top unit was reversing that decision.
Conor Garland, one of the Canucks’ most creative and effective forwards this season, continues to languish on the second unit, which did get some different faces at one point: checkers Juho Lammikko, Tyler Motte and Matthew Highmore.
Despite engaging physically and generating a couple of scoring chances, Canucks star Elias Pettersson had another pointless game and remains stuck on six goals through 37 games. He has one assist in the last six. He played as Horvat’s left winger for the second straight game.
Pettersson, however, was noticeable. Leading scorer and top centre J.T. Miller, who had a nine-game points streak when Vancouver shut down its schedule for nine days after a New Year’s Day win in Seattle, is still pointless on the road trip and had one of his most inert games as a Canuck: zero shot attempts, one hit and a 30 per-cent share of expected goals-for. Miller also had 5:58 of the power-play time.