VANCOUVER – As if staring down Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl wasn’t daunting enough on Saturday night, the Vancouver Canucks now face another formidable test after their third-straight home loss: to their faith.
Trying to outscore their problems was a disastrous strategy last season when the Canucks were dragged towards the bottom of the National Hockey League standings by one of the worst defensive records in the league. So now, they’re trying to win the other way.
The Canucks have succeeded in the first month of the season of playing better defensively, reducing the number of high-danger scoring chances they’re yielding. The problem is they’re still losing.
Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Oilers at Rogers Arena gave the Canucks zero out of a possible six points since returning from their season-opening 3-2-1 road trip. In the three regulation losses, Vancouver has scored four times and lost by one goal each night.
Their only score Tuesday, a wrist shot from the slot by Brock Boeser with the Canucks skating six against five, came with just 5.8 seconds remaining.
The players’ belief in and commitment to the new priorities instilled by coach Travis Green are being tested.
“Obviously, we're frustrated,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said. “We know we're doing a lot of good things out there. (But) we can't just be satisfied with doing good things and playing well defensively and still losing hockey games. We've got to figure out ways to get the job done and win at the end of the day. That's all the matters -- is getting those wins.
“We can sit here and say how well we played five-on-five, but at the end of the day, we didn't get the job done. In order to win hockey games, you've got to score goals.”
Asked about the balance between defending and attacking, Horvat said: “I think that's the fine line we have to find in our group. That's kind of what's going to make our team: sticking to our system. But at the same time, it's bearing down on our chances offensively in front of the net. We're doing a lot of good things defensively. We're doing a lot of things right in the defensive zone, but it's got to translate. We've got to put that much effort into the offensive zone as well.”
At even strength, the shots were 24-21 for the Oilers and high-danger scoring chances were 7-7, according to naturalstattrick.com.
Boeser and Oliver Ekman-Larsson were robbed late in the third period by Edmonton goalie Mikko Koskinen. In the second period, when Vancouver could have scored two or three goals, J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson missed chances from the edge of the crease, Alex Chiasson deflected the puck off the post and Tanner Pearson passed into traffic rather than shooting from an excellent position.
“I think our defensive game has been strong,” Boeser said. “It's just a matter of us forwards bearing down now and finishing. Obviously, we had some good looks. It's right there; we've just got to get over that hump.”
Among the top forwards who are struggling, Boeser said he hoped his goal would open “floodgates.” But the goal dam still looks tight in front of Miller and Pettersson and, since the road trip, other key forwards like Conor Garland and Nils Hoglander.
Canucks defencemen have contributed three goals in nine games, and Vancouver’s power play is 1-for-9 on the homestand and 3-for-23 the last seven games.
“It sucks losing; everyone knows that,” Green said. “Our guys will be frustrated. We came up on the wrong side of it but -- I don't like losing and our team doesn't like losing -- but I thought we probably took a step in the right direction for some of our guys tonight.”
Asked on Friday how his team could possibly stop the Oilers’ power play, Green said: “Don't take any penalties.”
But we’ll never know if it would have worked because the Canucks took two whole penalties on Saturday and the Oilers scored on both power plays to drive their win.
It’s difficult to find fault with a NHL team that manages to play hard for 60 minutes while committing rules infractions only twice, especially when you’re chasing McDavid and Draisaitl. But two chances were enough for the Oilers’ power play to sink the Canucks.
There was bad luck for Vancouver on both goals, made possible by Oiler-friendly bounces off Vancouver defenders.
After the Canucks opened with far more speed and intensity than they did in one-goal losses this week to Philadelphia and Minnesota, defenceman Tyler Myers was assessed a hooking penalty at 9:40 after he got caught on the wrong side of McDavid.
With one second left in the penalty, Warren Foegele swept in a rebound after Darnell Nurse’s shot changed direction off Canucks penalty killer Juho Lammikko, making it more difficult for goalie Thatcher Demko to control the rebound.
Vancouver had a pile of scoring chances in the second period but couldn’t squeeze a puck past Koskinen, and when Ekman-Larsson took a high-sticking penalty in the offensive zone at 17:53, the Oilers’ power play made it 2-0.
McDavid’s attempted pass bounced off penalty-killer Luke Schenn and straight out into the high slot to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who dished right to a wide-open Draisaitl for a one-timer at 19:20 that lifted Edmonton’s power-play efficiency to a monstrous 47.8 per cent for the season. This leads the NHL and the rest of the free world.
The Canucks didn’t get a power play until 16:59 of the final period. They didn’t score six-on-four, but eventually found a way not to get shut out. Moral victories are the only ones the Canucks generated this week.
Their seven-game homestand continues Tuesday against the New York Rangers.