Under the circumstances, the Vancouver Canucks couldn’t have been much better.
They significantly outplayed the Toronto Maple Leafs for one period on Saturday and outshot them through two. They weren’t outskated – by much – and battled hard for pucks. After a day of rest, the Canucks were all-in once again.
And still they lost 5-1 to the best team in Canada, completing a four-game road trip that began with optimism and ended with four losses and a 17-6 disparity in scoring. They aren’t going to outrun either COVID-19 or their schedule.
Saturday was Vancouver’s third game in four nights, its fifth game in eight. And now the schedule gets even worse, even harder, more unwinnable. The Canucks travel home across the country to play Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers in back-to-back games Monday and Tuesday, then depart for another six-game road trip to play three teams over two time zones.
Their schedule has become a funeral procession, and you seriously wonder how the Canucks will make it through their final 11 games in 17 nights.
But when you think things can’t get any worse, you were reminded Saturday that there is always another level of darkness beyond rinks and playing fields after sexual assault allegations against Jake Virtanen saw the Canucks place the winger on leave while the National Hockey League oversees an independent investigation into the alleged incident four years ago.
Canucks coach Travis Green, who refused to comment before the game about Virtanen beyond the official statement the club issued earlier Saturday, admitted afterwards he was concerned whether his team would be able to focus on the game.
By the third period it was clear that the players’ bodies were the issue, not their heads.
They were outshot by the Leafs 14-4, outscored 3-0 and looked again like a leaden team hollowed by their COVID crisis at the start of April.
As tired as they have looked physically, rock bottom may still be below them. What happens if they stop believing they can compete every night?
“Yeah, you're right, it is disappointing,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said of the 0-4 trip that ended whatever slim chance the team had of still making the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “At the same time, we can't dwell on it and just say we're going to pack it in. We've still got to come to the rink and be willing to play here these last 11 games, and play hard. As long as we still have a chance, we've got to come to the rink every single day and play hard.”
Green said he’s not worried about his team giving up.
“Our guys worked hard tonight,” he said. “Those first two periods were some pretty good hockey for our group. Couldn't pull the trigger, couldn't get a puck in the net besides the one. I thought we had a chance to score a few more goals. And they make you pay. The third goal for me was probably a tough one for our group (because) now we've got to start to chase the game a little bit. It's never a good thing when we start forcing the game and forcing plays.
But, “You can tell by how hard they're playing that they want to win badly. It's two of our better periods that we've probably played coming out of the break, coming out of the COVID. And they'll be disappointed that they lost, that's for sure. They should be.”
The third goal Green referenced was a high-slot deflection by Adam Brooks at 4:55 of the third period, about 15 seconds after Vancouver winger Tanner Pearson was unable to control the puck and exit the zone.
Auston Matthews had given the Leafs a 2-1 lead through two periods by shooting twice off Canuck defenders, the second one breaking a 1-1 tie at 3:50 after Alex Edler’s turnover.
Quinn Hughes’ giveaway led to Alex Galchenyuk’s goal that made it 4-1 at 11:39. Pearson’s post-and-in wrist shot through traffic gave Vancouver a first-period lead that the Canucks held for less than two minutes.
Out of the 240 minutes of hockey in Toronto and Ottawa, the 1:56 the Canucks led 1-0 on Saturday was the only time they were ahead.
“I'm not going to sit here and say it's been a cakewalk and it's been easy since the COVID,” Horvat said. “We're not trying to make excuses here, but obviously it takes a lot out of you. You're coming out (east), time change and everything, and playing against a good hockey team. Again, we've got to find ways to try to win games no matter what.”
The Canucks need to find ways to score. They’ve had one goal or less in four of their last six games, five of which had been losses.
Of the three experienced forwards the Canucks added before the April 12 trade deadline to bolster the bottom of their lineup, Jimmy Vesey, Travis Boyd and Matthew Highmore have zero goals and zero assists in 24 games between them.
“If everyone had the answer to how you score goals, there would be a lot of players making a lot of money in the NHL,” Green said. “That's why the guys that score get paid the most money. It's hard. It's hard to score, especially against good teams at this time of the year. I don't think we've had some puck luck, but I don't have the answer for you.”
Minor-league callup Kole Lind played his second game for the Canucks on Saturday and missed the net with three shots in 16:26 of ice time. Jonah Gadjovich, who has 15 goals in 19 American Hockey League games this season, will be the next Utica Comet to get a chance in the NHL once he completes a one-week travel quarantine.