VANCOUVER – There have been worse Vancouver Canucks teams than this one. We’re not seeing Jayson Megna and Michael Chaput in key situations tonight, like a few years ago when the team was on its way to a 69-point season.
But it is difficult to remember a darker time than this for the Canucks, whose struggle on the ice has been eclipsed the last five weeks by serious issues away from it.
After emerging from the most dangerous COVID-19 outbreak of the National Hockey League season with a pair of unlikely and uplifting wins against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canucks have lost five of their last six games, including four in a row, to plummet from the Canadian division playoff race for good.
They’ve scored six goals in those five losses – three of them last Wednesday in the last of three defeats to the Ottawa Senators – and have a look of desolation about them.
The Canucks have run out of energy, and now are running out of forwards as they open four games in six nights against the Edmonton Oilers by facing Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl tonight at Rogers Arena with only one of Vancouver’s top four centres.
Coach Travis Green confirmed after the morning skate that third-line centre Brandon Sutter won’t play tonight due to an upper-body injury.
Checking centre Jay Beagle has been out with an undisclosed injury since March 10 and first-line centre Elias Pettersson hasn’t played since March 2 when he left the lineup with a reported wrist injury that was supposed to be day-to-day but turned into something far more concerning.
Including depth players added along the way and winger Jake Virtanen, who was placed on leave Saturday in the wake of a sexual assault allegation, the team is missing eight forwards. The toll is nine if you count Micheal Ferland, who has spent the entire season on the long-term injured list due to concussion issues.
That’s nine forwards out in the middle of a losing streak on a team of COVID survivors who must play their final 11 games of this pandemic season over just 17 days.
“Yeah, when you look at it like that. . . you know it's a lot,” Green said of the injuries. “You don't usually run into that; I don't think we have before where we've had eight forwards hurt.”
Nearly all the injuries are to the Canucks’ bottom two lines. The one that isn’t, to Pettersson, has become the most critical.
Green compared the recent Calder Trophy winner’s game-breaking qualities to Toronto’s Auston Matthews, who snatched a couple of opportunistic goals in Saturday’s 5-1 win while the Maple Leafs were getting outshot by the Canucks through two periods.
“Where do you start?” Green said when asked about missing Pettersson.
“I thought we played a very strong two periods and a game-breaker gets two goals, and you miss that. It's not an excuse but I'm also not going to sit here and say we don't miss that in our lineup. We've won before without him, but we also had some other players playing. Petey's a big part of our team. He's trying to get back, he's working hard to get back and . . . if he was ready to play he would.
"But when you talk about your top-end players and what they bring to your group, there's a reason why those guys are where they're at. They're difference-makers, they create chances, they alleviate pressure easily, not just in the offensive zone but in your own zone. But we can't dwell on that and we haven't been. It's a big part, but he's not here and we worry about the guys that are here.”
Rookie Nils Hoglander has been in the Canucks’ top six all season, and rookie call-up Kole Lind will play his third straight game tonight alongside Bo Horvat.
Of the bottom six forwards for tonight – Matthew Highmore-Tyler Graovac-Jayce Hawryluk, and Jimmy Vesey-Travis Boyd-Zack MacEwen – only MacEwen was a regular (mostly) when this season began.
“It's just different,” veteran defenceman Tyler Myers said of the mental challenge Canucks face.
“It's a very unique situation, especially with what happened last month (with the outbreak). In saying that, we're technically still in it right now. A lot of it's going to come down to this week, these next four games against a good team who have had success this year. You look at each guy in the room; each guy, we're battling hard.”
Effort has rarely been an issue for Green’s team. Everything else seems to be.