As just about every NHL player, coach, reporter and mascot in Canada has noted, these two- and three-game series between teams are going to be like the playoffs.
The Vancouver Canucks need to be better the next time they try to close out a series in the North Division.
With a chance to sweep the Edmonton Oilers, the Canucks gave back on Thursday what they had taken on Wednesday and lost 5-2 to split the season-opening doubleheader at Rogers Place.
As last season’s leading scorer and team leader, J.T. Miller, quarantines in Vancouver because he came into close contact with teammate Jordie Benn, who may or may not have COVID-19, a split for the Canucks in Edmonton is fine. Realistically, they’d probably take another this weekend when they visit the Calgary Flames twice in three days, starting Saturday.
But Vancouver didn’t give itself much of a chance Thursday to be 2-0, something the Canucks have not been at the start of a regular season since 2016.
“They came out a lot harder than we did to start the game,” defenceman Nate Schmidt said. “They put us back on our toes early. You play the same team back-to-back nights in their own building ... you know you’re going to get a better effort out of them after we come in and win Game 1.
“It’s a huge part of this league – minimizing the (losing) streaks that you go on, maximizing the streaks you go on winning-wise. We learned a valuable lesson tonight about how you have to come out and play Game 2 and 3 of a series.”
The Oilers, and especially superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, were different than the players who lost 5-3 to the Canucks on Wednesday. But so were the Canucks, as Vancouver yielded far more space in their zone and scoring chances as they chased the game almost from the start.
“You can count on the other team raising their game the next game,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “I just didn’t think we raised ours enough.”
MISSING MILLER TIME
There’s no argument on the West Coast about how impactful Miller has been to the Canucks since he was acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He led linemate Elias Pettersson and all other Canucks last season with 72 points and did not miss a game. But his value increased in Edmonton even with Miller was watching on TV 1,000 kilometres away.
Except for some third-period wizardry in Wednesday’s win, Pettersson and Boeser generated little at even-strength without Miller on their left wing. Equally important, Jake Virtanen, given a golden chance to replace Miller, was so ineffective that Green dropped him from the top unit early on Thursday. Virtanen finished with just 10:27 of ice time.
At this stage, it’s clear Virtanen is not a top-six forward, and the Canucks don’t appear to have anyone well-suited to moving into the first two lines if there is even only one injury or absence.
“They got two goals the first game. They didn’t have a great game tonight,” Green said of Pettersson’s line. “They’ll be better next game.”
But the coach added: “The line just wasn’t doing anything. They weren’t playing very well. McDavid’s line was spending a lot of time in our zone so we tried to change it up a little bit.”
Pettersson and Boeser combined for four shots and zero points. McDavid, who scored a hat trick, and Draisaitl combined for 10 shots and eight points.
Pettersson said an important thing he learned from last summer’s Stanley Cup tournament is that the little details are massive. McDavid’s rebound goal that made it 2-0 Edmonton with just 7/10ths of a second left in the opening period was an example how the Canucks’ details and intensity were unsatisfactory.
The Oilers managed to generate McDavid’s goal from an offensive-zone faceoff that started with 2.5 seconds remaining.
Canucks captain Bo Horvat, despite trying to scrum the puck, lost the faceoff cleanly to Draisaitl. Jay Beagle couldn’t get out quickly enough to block Kailer Yamamoto’s shot, and when goalie Thatcher Demko kicked a rebound out to his left, Vancouver defenceman Schmidt was a half-step out of position on McDavid.
“That’s on me,” Schmidt said. “At the end of the period, you’ve got to know the most dangerous player is out there. A shot comes, you freeze for a second to see if you can see where it goes. You can’t freeze for a second. I have to have that play.”
After watching stablemate Braden Holtby win the season-opener for the Canucks, Demko returned to the crease Thursday in the same rink where his brilliant three-game playoff cameo last summer against the Vegas Golden Knights convinced Canucks management that the team could survive a free-agent loss of starter Jacob Markstrom.
Demko was not the problem Thursday. Sure, he froze the puck when he could have moved it to run out the clock at the end of the first – “quick whistle,” he said – but the goalie made a pile of five-star saves as the Oilers exceeded in just over half the game the 31 shots they mustered Wednesday against Holtby. Thursday’s shots finished 46-40 for Edmonton.
Three of the goals Demko allowed were on close-range rebounds, one was an uncontested 15-footer from McDavid, whose speed winding up on an Edmonton power play made Canucks Tanner Pearson and Alex Edler look like statues, and the last was a goalmouth tap-in by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins after Vancouver rookie Nils Hoglander made two bad turnovers within a few seconds.
Demko should get another chance to play in Calgary, where he’ll face his friend and mentor, Markstrom.
Since all 56 games for Vancouver are within the Canadian division, each game becomes a four-pointer with playoff implications.
“The uniqueness of the same teams playing each other over and over again is it’s going to be tough to make up points (in the standings),” Canucks defenceman Travis Hamonic said. “You’ve got to ... be focussed every night.”