VANCOUVER – With so few actual victories this season, the Vancouver Canucks have needed to bolster themselves mentally with a series of moral victories.
In their last seven games, they’ve arguably been the better team in all of them. Their play has improved vastly since the dismal opening three weeks of the National Hockey League season. But they’ve won only twice in those seven games as the moral victories piled up. The Canucks must lead the league in them as surely as Vancouver centre Elias Pettersson leads the league in posts and crossbars.
On Sunday, however, there was no moral victory. Sure, there was one point salvaged late in a 4-3 overtime defeat to the Winnipeg Jets. But this was a moral loss to go with the, you know, real loss. The Canucks have had 14 of those through 22 games.
Leading 2-0 on home ice late in the second period after largely controlling play, the Canucks made enough mistakes to surrender three goals in 16 minutes before eventually losing 27 seconds into overtime when new Jet Pierre-Luc Dubois overpowered Brock Boeser one-on-one and scored from an angle off the blocker of goalie Braden Holtby.
The Canucks got a point because Pettersson, who had just struck iron for the eighth time this season, double the posts and bars of any other NHL player, finally hit neither the goal frame nor the goalie when he one-timed a slapshot over Connor Hellebuyck’s shoulder to tie it 3-3 during a power play with 38 seconds remaining in regulation time.
After losing 2-0 to Winnipeg on Friday, the Canucks gained one point on the weekend. The Jets left Vancouver with four. Moral loss.
“Especially the way the game went, this was an emotional loss, I think, for our group,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “We did a lot of good things tonight. That’s a good hockey team over there. I think we’ve got them (held to) around 10 or 11 scoring chances, which is probably one of our lowest against all year. We did a lot of good things. A lot of things I loved in our game. Made a couple mistakes that you’d probably like to have back, but that happens in every hockey game.
“It’s just not going for our team right now the way they’re playing. But that’s reality.”
Holtby allowed Mark Scheifele’s goal, after J.T. Miller’s overly elaborate pass was followed by Boeser’s turnover in the Winnipeg zone, to leak through him at 5:43 of the third period when the Jets tied it 2-2.
On Winnipeg’s go-ahead goal by Neal Pionk on a power play at 10:33, Holtby was screened by teammate Jordie Benn but left a lot of net open. And he couldn’t keep out Dubois’ winner from a sharpish angle after Boeser took his own poor angle on the Jet.
“That’s one on the second goal… it’s one your goalie has to save in order to have success,” Holtby said. “I thought we played a pretty good game. Myself, I just have to be better.
“I feel good about a lot of things, but this game is a matter of individual plays, and there’s a couple there that I need to be better on.”
If there was any doubt that Thatcher Demko is now the Canucks’ starter, Holtby’s inability to help his team hold its two-goal lead on Sunday reinforced the new hierarchy.
Vancouver’s first period was one of its best this season. The Canucks outscored the Jets 2-0, outshot them 17-9 and high-danger shot attempts were 7-0.
Some of the Canucks’ bad luck seemed to be changing when Brandon Sutter made it 1-0 just 3:38 into the game, reacting first to a lively end-boards rebound that had Hellebuyck going the wrong way.
Then Pettersson, after all those posts and missing shots by an inch, scored blindly at 15:40 by reversing the puck between his legs after getting pegged at the top of the crease by Boeser’s shot from the slot.
The Canucks continued to pressure the Jets at the start of the second period, forcing five straight saves from Hellebuyck to take their shooting advantage to 22-9 before Winnipeg finally started to sustain some offensive-zone pressure.
The Jets cut the deficit in half at 14:47 when Dubois scored from a quick pass across the slot by Blake Wheeler.
The Jets’ new first line of Dubois, Wheeler and Scheifele finished with three goals and nine points and won the even-strength power matchup against Pettersson, Boeser and Miller.
“There’s still a lot of confidence in our group,” Sutter insisted. “It’s frustrating when you play like that and don’t get rewarded. We sucked a point out of it but, hey, it’s all division games this year so you’ve got to start beating these teams. Hopefully we’ve been through the rough patch of the year and we can keep pushing and getting better like we are.”
It’s already too late for moral victories. The Canucks are 8-12-2 and their .409 points percentage is the third-lowest in the NHL.
“You have to stay positive” Pettersson said. “Nothing good comes with being negative. This two weeks… I think we could have a lot more wins, but it’s not bouncing our way, it’s not going our way. But we’ve still got to keep our heads up be ready for next one. No need to look back; just keep moving forward.”
And hope there isn’t a cliff coming.