VANCOUVER — For the first time since Travis Green was hired as coach, the Vancouver Canucks look dead in the water, truly stalled and in danger of foundering.
Hope that Wednesday’s wonderfully chaotic win against the Montreal Canadiens was a sign the Canucks were starting to move forward again was obliterated Thursday when Vancouver gave away a pile of goals, including two in nine seconds, and was embarrassed 7-3 by the Habs at Rogers Arena.
The seas are getting rougher and the Canucks already look capable of sinking. They no longer seem like a team trapped by circumstance in a slow start, but a team in serious trouble.
“We weren’t just giving up scoring chances, we were giving up goals,” Green, who is in the fourth and final year of his Canucks contract, said after the game. “We gift-wrapped probably four or five goals. It wasn’t a game where we were hemmed in our zone… it was just giving up breakaways. In this league, if you give up chances that are gifts, you’re going to lose bad. We did that tonight.”
After incremental improvements since Green’s arrival and a breakthrough season last year that included three rounds of NHL playoffs, the Canucks look lost.
Six games into 2021’s 56-game sprint, the Canucks have allowed 28 goals, easily the most in the NHL. And Vancouver’s minus-10 goal differential is better than only the Chicago Blackhawks’.
They’ve lost three defencemen to injury already and a fourth hasn’t played since testing positive for COVID. Another, veteran Tyler Myers, may face a disciplinary review for a late hit Thursday to the head of Montreal’s Joel Armia.
On Thursday, the Canucks’ power play was outscored 2-1 by the Canadiens penalty-killing and top forward Elias Pettersson, whose five-game scoring famine is the longest of his short career, was dropped from the first line after his second-period turnover led to one of Montreal’s shorthanded goals.
It is a mess.
“We look a little bit immature at times,” Green explained. “It could be when you have a little bit of success, and you win some playoff series, you come back and you forget how hard it is to win. We’re not a team that has ever won easy; we have to grind out wins. We’ve got to realize that and remember it’s hard to win in the league.
“We had that mentality last year. We’ve got to get back to that.”
When Canucks captain Bo Horvat was asked about Green’s observation, teammate Nate Schmidt, who was sharing the Zoom call with reporters, interjected.
A month before his October trade from the Vegas Golden Knights, Schmidt played against the Canucks in the playoffs.
“This group had a lot of jam… and didn’t give up on it,” Schmidt said. “They made it as hard as it could possibly be for Vegas to move on. It’s a series like that, you look at a team like this. . . (that’s why) there’s frustration in our group because you see how hard we can make it on teams to win.
“When I first got traded here, that’s something I thought was such a positive with the group. (It) was never going to let things like this go. It’s a reality check where we are. But the way I look at it, we know it’s there. I think that’s the reason why it’s frustrating.”
The Canucks defence had more kids in the cast than Sesame Street. With veterans Alex Edler and Travis Hamonic both injured on Wednesday and unable to play Thursday, Vancouver’s blue line included rookies Olli Juolevi (four NHL games), Brogan Rafferty (two) and Jalen Chatfield (one). Sophomore Quinn Hughes was the Canucks’ third-most experienced defenceman.
Of course there were going to be mistakes. And of course, another injury, as Chatfield, who was playing the best of the freshmen, failed to survive the first period.
But for all the concern about the defence’s inexperience, Vancouver’s biggest problems were some astonishingly poor plays from a few of its best players, including Schmidt.
With time and space and the puck in his own zone, Schmidt managed to whiff on a pass, then went to the wrong man after his turnover, leaving Armia with a shorthanded breakaway that he buried in the first period.
On a second-period Canucks power play, Pettersson’s nightmare start to the season got worse when his lateral pass at the Montreal blue line was picked off, leading to another breakaway and another goal for Tyler Toffoli.
When J.T. Miller’s shot bounced back off Canadiens goalie Jake Allen, as both Hughes and Myers were moving forward inside the offensive zone, Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko had the pleasure of another wide-open breakaway.
Demko managed to stop this one on Nick Suzuki, but the puck arced across the crease where Josh Anderson bunted it in after breezing uncontested past an exhausted Miller.
And Myers, the most experienced defenceman in the lineup, took three interference penalties in the first half of the game, then late in the second period turned over the puck along the boards in the Canucks’ zone and was slow to pick up his man as Armia scored again during the Canadiens’ three-goal outburst.
Nobody can win games when their “best” players are making plays this bad.
Horvat had two of the Canucks goals, Brandon Sutter the other. Armia finished with four points before leaving the game after getting crunched by Myers’ shoulder with 2:28 remaining. Myers was assessed a match penalty.
Armia’s linemate, Toffoli, scored twice and has five goals in two games against his ex-team.
Four points adrift of the Canadiens when they could have pulled even on Thursday, the 2-4 Canucks are in danger of losing touch with .500 heading into the series finale against Montreal on Saturday.
“We’re six games into it and we still have things to learn and things to clean up,” Horvat said. “Obviously, tonight wasn’t good enough. We know that as a group. There’s still a lot of hockey to be played and we’re going to be ready to go here in the next couple of days.”