VANCOUVER -- On his second to last shift of the game, Elias Pettersson tried to wind up with the puck in his own zone and fell down unchecked. When he got up, he received the puck back at speed from teammate Quinn Hughes, then heeled his pass at the blue line for a turnover.
It is impossible to provide context for how badly the Vancouver Canucks’ best forward is struggling, except to say we have never seen Pettersson look this awkward and seemingly bereft of confidence.
Importantly, he is also bereft of points, having managed only one at even strength in eight games this season, and struggling through the last six games with a total of no goals, two assists and just nine shots on goal. He had one shot on Thursday.
Pettersson is not the reason the Canucks lost their second straight home game 2-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers. But he is indicative of Vancouver’s biggest problem: its best forwards, who are supposed to be the turbo-charged engine on this team, are failing to make an impact.
Brock Boeser has just one goal and one assist in the five games he has played since returning from a pre-season injury that cost him vital preparation time. J.T. Miller hasn’t scored in six games, but after setting up a handful of goals on the Canucks’ season-opening 3-2-1 road trip, is pointless in the two home games and just went shot-less in consecutive games for the first time in nearly two years.
Buzzsaw wingers Conor Garland and Nils Hoglander, who filled the offensive and play-driving void on the road swing, have combined for zero points and two shots on net in the two home games.
The Canucks have been a little better defensively than last season – although the dreadful opening minutes against the Flyers were a flashback, filled with odd-numbered rushes – but the offence is a surprising concern early in the National Hockey League campaign.
The Canucks have scored six goals in their four losses, which is why a team desperate for a positive start to the season is back below .500 at 3-4-1.
“Definitely frustrating,” Hughes said Thursday night. “Everyone in the room wanted that one; that was an important game. That was frustrating. I think getting scored on in the first minute, it's tough too.
“We talk about (starting well) in the locker-room, so it's just about going out there and doing it. If we're going to pinch, we need a third guy high. And if we're going to pinch, we need to stop the puck. We've just got to keep going and play sharp in the first (period), and first 10 minutes play hard, come out excited and ready to go. Like I said, everyone in there wants to win. We've just got to go out there and try to play a little bit better in the first.”
Flyer Sean Couturier scored just 22 seconds into the game, on a two-on-one after Canuck defenceman Tyler Myers pinched in the offensive zone without sufficient cover from teammate Bo Horvat. It was the start of a period in which Vancouver was outshot 15-4. This was after the Canucks’ leaden start in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild in the home-opener at Rogers Arena.
Thursday’s shot disparity reached an embarrassing 18-4 early in the second period before the Canucks, aided by a couple of power plays, finally started skating with the same pace as the Flyers and generated some offensive zone time around Philadelphia goalie Martin Jones.
“We talked about it, obviously, having a good start,” Canucks defenceman Luke Schenn said. “In the first period in particular, we gave up a lot of odd-man rushes. Some off the neutral zone, sometimes there's a defenceman pinching. There's no question that starts are huge and, like we said before, it's tough chasing games.”
The Canucks quickly tied it 1-1 at 2:15 of the first when Hughes jammed a point shot past Juho Lammikko’s screen and through Jones.
But when Hughes was dubiously called for interference at 6:48, it took the Flyers’ power play just 10 seconds to beautifully execute a set play with a bank pass off the end boards: Claude Giroux to Couturier to James Van Riemsdyk for a tap-in.
Vancouver’s power play had five chances in the final 53 minutes but could not generate a tying goal.
The last turnover of the game was made by Pettersson, just inside the Philadelphia blue line in the dying seconds after Boeser gave him a hand grenade of a pass.
“We have to be competing and skating for anything to work,” Miller said after Thursday’s morning skate when asked about the struggle to score for him, Pettersson and Boeser. “If we want it to be an easy game as the line -- skilled players -- it's going to look like it has so far. We haven't spent any time in the offensive zone. I don't want to be a cliche to say ‘just do the little things and just chip in every puck’ because that's not what makes us good. But if we're not competing and skating and winning our one-on-one battles, you're going to be chasing the puck all game, and it doesn't matter what line you're on.”
Canucks goalie Jaroslav Halak, who looked shaky early on, made a pile of strong saves when it was 2-1 to give his team a chance.
Boeser had the best opportunity to tie it, teed up by Garland on a quick three-on-one after a Flyers turnover late in the third period. But with space at the near post, Boeser’s off-wing one-timer went back towards the middle of the net and hit Jones as the goalie was moving across his crease.
The Canucks’ seven-game homestand continues Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers.