Starting an unprecedented 14 games in 22 nights, and just six games into their return from a COVID-19 crisis, the Canucks’ 6-3 loss Wednesday to the Ottawa Senators sure felt like the end of something.
Hope? Belief? The chance to actually still make the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Maybe all of the above.
In their biggest game of the season, the Canucks looked tired and careless as the Senators finished off a four-game series against Vancouver with their third win, passing their opponents on points and dumping the Canucks into last place in the Canadian division.
The Canucks, of course, have played seven fewer games than the Senators and at the final horn Wednesday, still had four games in hand on the Canadiens, who were 10 points ahead of Vancouver and playing in Toronto.
But the way they’ve looked the last couple of games, the Canucks could have 14 games left and it still wouldn’t be enough.
The more Canuck players and staff try to push past talk about the team’s recent health crisis, the more their play spotlights it. This team of COVID survivors – 19 players from their NHL roster tested positive for the virulent P.1 variant as the calendar flipped to April from March – looks spent.
And the more tired they play, the more fragile they become mentally.
Mostly, you just feel sorry for the Canucks and what the players and their families have endured. But they look done. Even with 13 games to go, Wednesday looked like the end.
“I thought we looked a little tired tonight, to be honest, physically,” coach Travis Green said. “I thought we look mentally tired, too. But there's no rule in the league that you can't win when you're tired. I actually thought we showed a little bit of mental weakness in the beginning of the second period with some of the plays we made. The first three goals, we just kind of handed them (to Ottawa) with bad passes, bad turnovers, bad coverage, and all of a sudden six minutes into the period, we've given up three. We might have been tired, but you can still win when you're tired.
“You've got to be smart, you got to do the right things, you got to make the right plays. You can pass the puck on the tape when you're tired. You can make a good decision and get a puck behind them and not turn it over and not make hope-plays when you're tired. But that's being mentally strong as well. That's understanding that, hey, maybe I've got to play a little simpler game, maybe I’ve got to play directly, maybe I've got to put a puck behind them (because) I don't quite have my jump. We kind of gave into it a little bit, and sometimes we do that when we get down as a team because I know our guys want to win so bad. I've seen it before, when we get down a little bit earlier. . . where we start to really chase the game and push to try to make plays out of nothing. And that usually doesn't end up well in our favour, and it didn't tonight.”
When a coach is as good as Green was in his post-game Zoom call, it’s often an indication of how badly his team played.
The Canucks registered six of the first seven shots on net before getting outshot 32-16 by the Senators over the final 55 minutes.
Victor Mete scored on Ottawa’s first shot, making it 1-0 at 2:04, after skating unchecked through a Grand Canyon-sized hole between defencemen Tyler Myers and Olli Juolevi. Interestingly, Myers, who was more out of position than Juolevi, pointed out that it was a Canuck forward’s responsibility to pick up Mete, a defenceman.
Needing a push to start the second period, the Canucks instead surrendered goals 32 seconds apart to Chris Tierney and Josh Norris to fall behind 3-0 by the 1:10 mark.
The first was bad luck as Ryan Dzingel’s shot hit Vancouver defenceman Alex Edler and fell perfectly for Tierney, but the second was plain awful as J.T. Miller, the Canucks’ best forward with Elias Pettersson out indefinitely due to injury, had a casual backhand, cross-zone pass intercepted near the Vancouver net. Miller then compounded his error with a flimsy attempt to check Brady Tkachuk, who skated the puck to the goal and set up Norris on a two-on-one.
Green was so angry with his team he burned a timeout to get his players’ attention by yelling at them.
Just 53 seconds after Myers got a goal back for the Canucks, Thomas Chabot made it 4-1 for the Senators at 6:36 after Vancouver defenceman Quinn Hughes fell with the puck inside the Ottawa blueline and created a four-on-two counter-attack.
Asked what went wrong, Green said there was “a bit of a list.”
Asked about Miller’s play, Green said: “J.T.'s a highly competitive guy. Does he make mistakes? Yeah, he does, every player does. And I'm not letting him off the hook; it wasn't a good play for sure. Sometimes J.T.'s will and competitiveness does get the best of him, and sometimes he tries to do a little too much. Much like when Hughes fell down. Here's a young guy that just wants to put his team on his back. I know that, I understand that. But that's that mental fortitude that you've got to stay strong and stay with the game.
“We talked about the type of game Ottawa is was playing right now. They don't give up a lot. They're waiting for us to make mistakes, and we're kind of trying to play the same way. I thought we gave into it a little. We cracked first tonight. We cracked for six or seven minutes there and it cost us.”
It’s too soon to say how much, but it looks like a lot.
The Canucks visit the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.