VANCOUVER — Maybe Elias Pettersson is even more than the only untouchable player on the Vancouver Canucks. Maybe he is the Canucks, because the team was unrecognizable without him on Saturday.
One game after they ended a road win against the Calgary Flames with 40 minutes of their best all-around play this season, the Canucks, without Pettersson on Saturday due to a non-Covid illness, were beaten 5-1 by the Winnipeg Jets.
They weren’t just beaten, but schooled. The Canucks managed three shots on net in the first period, none of them memorable. Until garbage time in the third period, they were unable to penetrate the Jets’ defensive perimeter as Winnipeg put on a master class on defending the goal area.
With a rare chance to move above .500 for the first time this season, the Canucks didn’t so much fall backwards as leap there. Yes, the Jets, rebranded under coach Rick Bowness, can frustrate you defensively.
But, “It’s more frustrating watching our team sometimes when you can go from great to whatever tonight was,” Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You try to build them up; you told them how good they played in Calgary and we did an awful lot of good things. And then we come here and it’s not even the same team. It’s hard to understand sometimes.”
Defenceman Ethan Bear, who joined the Canucks in October from a winning organization in Carolina, said: “The game is won along the walls and in front of the net. We need better wall work and we need to get shots and players to the net more. And that’s it. You watch our game in Calgary and that’s exactly what we were doing — we were winning the wall battles and were getting people to the net and shots to the net. Tonight, we struggled to not only get pucks there, but we struggled to get bodies there and it’s tough.
“We’ve got to figure out how to play at home. Quite frankly, I just don’t know what’s going on. If I had the answer for it, I’d be sure to share it. It’s really tough. . . just to see. We’ve got to stop having so much fun and just get to work because of what needs to be done.”
Fun is not a word people think of when it comes to the Canucks this season — unless those people are headline writers.
But Vancouver has won six straight road games, including the 4-3 triumph in Calgary. At Rogers Arena, the Canucks have lost four of their last six games, and the two wins were in overtime against non-playoff teams.
It’s difficult to imagine that a team could feel complacent about anything after losing its first seven games like the Canucks did this season. But each time they string together two or three good performances — they had won four of five games before Saturday — they seem to lose urgency and focus.
By the time they trailed the Jets 3-0 at 12:08 of the second period, the Canucks had seven shots on target. They had plenty of empty Corsi calories with as many shot attempts as the Jets, but the great majority were from the outside and would not have troubled Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck even if he’d been forced to get out of bed and make a save.
“You’ve got to get there; that’s your job,” Boudreau said of the Canuck-free zone in front of Hellebuyck. “You can’t turn pucks over at the blue line when they’re standing up and they’re guarding the blue line. You’ve got to get it behind them. If you look at any game we’ve had success, we get the puck behind them, and we beat them below the circles. We’re not a team that comes up and scores a lot of three-on-two pretty goals with the fourth man coming up. It’s a grinding kind of team that works hard to get goals. That’s what our identity is supposed to be, and when we don’t do that. . . we have a hard time getting scoring chances.”
“Honestly,” Bear said. “We’ve just got to win our one-on-one battles — all over the ice. That’s just the way it is. Some guys make nice plays and they advance the puck and then the next guy doesn’t, and it’s coming right back. It gets mentally taxing and it’s a problem. We’ve got to keep advancing the puck and getting in their end and putting the stress on the other team. Too much stress is on us all the time.”
To cope with the loss of Pettersson, the Canucks No. 1 centre, leading scorer and best player, Boudreau changed his top three forward lines.
He shifted J.T. Miller back from left wing to fill Pettersson’s spot between wingers Andrei Kuzmenko and Ilya Mikheyev. That meant Conor Garland was moved to Miller’s place beside centre Bo Horvat. Without Garland on the third line, which generated two of three Vancouver goals in Calgary on Wednesday, minor-league callup Lane Pederson was deployed with Sheldon Dries and Nils Hoglander.
Sound confusing? It looked that way, too.
In the first two periods when the game was decided, the Jets blocked 13 shots. The Canucks blocked two.
While the Canucks were bouncing pucks off an impenetrable forest, Winnipeg’s Kyle Copabianco, for example, scored his team’s second goal by blasting a point shot through four Canucks, one Jet, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.
Horvat, more unaffordable to the Canucks by the goal, scored for Vancouver at 14:36 of the third period when the score was 5-0. So in a game his team lost by four, the captain got a little more expensive to re-sign.
“They do a lot of things really well and, obviously, defending is one of those,” Horvat said of the 20-9-1 Jets. “They limited our opportunities from inside and we just didn’t do a good enough job of getting in there and getting ourselves in good areas to score goals.
“The best teams are the most consistent teams on a nightly basis. It was night and day from our game in Calgary and that’s unacceptable by us.”
Unacceptable, but not uncommon.