Braden Holtby is doing so much for the Vancouver Canucks these days, he’s even trying to take the blame.
The Canucks lost vital ground in the National Hockey League standings when they were beaten 2-1 Monday by the Ottawa Senators. But Holtby, the veteran goalie who has emerged from the team’s COVID crisis in vintage form, was still Vancouver’s best player. And second place wasn’t close.
But when it was over, the Canucks looking tired and slow at times and unable to generate sustained pressure until the closing minutes, Holtby said his “mental error” cost Vancouver on the winning goal in the second period.
With the Canucks looking stuck in quicksand near the end of a 97-second shift, Holtby handled Connor Brown’s shot from the slot – one of six shot attempts during a minute of continuous Ottawa pressure – but swept the puck towards the sideboards instead of freezing it for a faceoff and line change.
Fifteen seconds later, at 11:41, Brady Tkachuk found Drake Batherson wide open in the high slot and the Senators winger wristed a shot past Holtby to break a 1-1 tie.
“That’s the mental error I’m talking about,” Holtby said. “That’s one of those where at the start of the shift, it’s the right play. Right after I did that, I realized how tired we were. One of those things that just came back to bite us. It’s definitely a puck I should have covered.”
Probably, but we’re still not letting Holtby take the blame for this.
Earlier in the shift, defenceman Nate Schmidt’s poor clearing attempt was kept in at the blue line. And right after Holtby kept the puck alive, Schmidt’s pass along the boards to Brock Boeser was weakly played by the Canucks’ sniper, resulting in another turnover.
“I thought we could have got the puck out a couple of times on the one goal,” coach Travis Green said. “A couple plays we weren’t quick enough. Part of that is maybe getting a little tired from being in there (so long). We talk about holding the middle, and we didn’t get to the middle of the ice. We had a breakdown.”
Earlier, Green told reporters: “We talk to our team a lot about ‘every shift matters.’ Especially with our team, and at this time of the year, every turnover, every puck battle matters. I thought we let our foot off the gas. We defended a little bit slow in the second, made a couple soft plays on the wall, and we lost some momentum for about seven to 10 minutes.”
When Batherson scored, there was still nearly half the game left. But the Canucks allowed it to be the difference.
The shift reveals a couple of things about the Canucks: they have little or no margin for error as they desperately try to cross a 10-point gulf to the Montreal Canadiens and the final playoff spot in the North Division; and after 19 of their NHL players were mauled by COVID-19 at the start of April, Vancouver can’t afford to get stuck on the ice for 90-second shifts.
Boeser, who leads the Canucks with 17 goals and 37 points, played only two shifts in the next 12 ½ minutes after Batherson scored. Jimmy Vesey played only two shifts the rest of the game.
In a 24-minute span from the middle of the second period until late in the third, the Canucks tested third-string Ottawa goalie Marcus Hogberg only five times.
Vancouver’s only goal was scored by sixth defenceman Olli Juolevi – on 45-foot shot past teammate Jayce Hawryluk’s screen at 14:07 of the first period, about four minutes after Josh Norris shot through Holtby on a two-on-one following an ill-advised cross-ice turnover by Schmidt.
“I think the second period cost us the game,” Juolevi said. “We didn’t skate well enough and we didn’t move the puck well. It’s a tough loss, but we’ve just got to go and get the next one.”
The Canucks have lost two of three games against the last-place Senators and end the four-game series on Wednesday. That’s when Vancouver’s revised schedule starts trending toward torturous with its final 14 games over just 22 days.
Monday’s disappointment was exacerbated by Montreal’s 2-1 win in Calgary. The Canucks trail the Canadiens by 10 points with five games in hand. The Senators have played seven more games than the Canucks, but will pass them on points with a regulation win Wednesday.
“If we’re going to have any chance of getting in the playoffs, we can’t worry about what Montreal does or any other team,” Holtby said. “We need to believe that we need to win every game. In the end, hopefully that’s enough. But right now, it’s moving on to the next game and finding out how we’re going to get two points there.”
Here are some basics: move your feet and the puck quickly, win your puck battles, get out of your zone and avoid 97-second shifts. And give the goalie a little more help.