Canucks take step in right direction, but still walking a difficult path

Tyler Toffoli scored twice as the Montreal Canadiens held off a late push from the Vancouver Canucks for a 5-3 win.

At least the Vancouver Canucks did not beat themselves on Tuesday. The Montreal Canadiens did that – again.

After a dreadful 6-2 loss on Monday when the Canucks never gave themselves a chance to win by repeatedly giving the puck to the Canadiens in dangerous positions and then failing to defend, Vancouver cleaned up its game 24 hours later and at least made Montreal earn it.

But even with their reforms and another excellent game from goalie Thatcher Demko, whom we should now call Vancouver’s “starter,” the Canucks still surrendered another handful of goals to the Canadiens and lost 5-3.

Montreal’s first three goals came on a deflected pass and two deflected shots, and the last was an empty-netter, so the many categories in which the Canadiens are superior to the Canucks include luck.

And just because, former Canuck Tyler Toffoli scored two more goals against his old team to make it eight goals in five games against Vancouver this season. The Canadiens have taken nine of 10 points against the Canucks, who were ventilated for 28 goals in the five games.

The Canucks have been so erratic during a torturous start – the National Hockey League force-fed them 13 games in 21 nights with four sets of back-to-backs – that it’s difficult to make confident conclusions about the group.

But we know this much: the organization should have found the money to keep Toffoli, who was turned away by Vancouver in free agency and signed a relatively modest four-year, $17-million contract with Montreal. Optics were made even worse Tuesday by Canuck coach Travis Green’s removal from the lineup of recently-signed winger Jake Virtanen, whose $2.55-million annual cap hit would have covered much of the annual cost for Toffoli.

“What do you say? He should have scored them last year,” Elias Pettersson, Toffoli’s linemate at the end of last season, said of his ex-teammate. “He’s a great player, awesome guy. But of course it sucks that he has to score those goals against us. It is what it is. We’ve got to play him tighter.”

The Canucks didn’t miss Virtanen, but they sure have missed Toffoli. Vancouver’s top line has been so spotty without him – and was abysmal on Monday – that Green re-deployed his best forwards on Tuesday, splitting J.T. Miller from Pettersson and using Bo Horvat on the top line.

The moves freshened the lines and the Canucks’ top-six forwards combined for 21 shots and generated goals for Pettersson and Tanner Pearson, albeit with Vancouver playing with an extra man on both.

“I just felt like we needed a different look,” Green said. “There’s been a lot of talk about certain players maybe not playing as well, and sometimes a breath of fresh air kind of alleviates some of that pressure. We had a good team talk with our group, a couple individual talks. I thought every player really was buying in tonight to how we needed to play. That’s what we need from our team.

“Now, we didn’t get a win. I’m not happy about that. Sometimes when you play as bad as we did the night before, as a coach, you’re really looking for your team to respond in the right way and we did.”

Green called it a “step in the right direction,” but the Canucks are still walking in an awfully dark place.

Having struggled just to compete with the 7-1-2 Canadiens, the Canucks open a three-game series in Toronto against the 7-2-1 Maple Leafs on Thursday. Getting swept in Montreal also sunk the Canucks back below .500 at 6-7-0.

Their shortened season will already by one-quarter over after Thursday’s game.

“I don’t want to sit back and dwell on what’s happened in the past,” Miller said. “It’s 10, 11, 12 games into the season. We’re trying to build our game. It’s a kind of funky start to the year, but we played a good team game today. We have three more games on the road trip, so we’re just worried about having a good game next game.”

Honestly, it’s impossible to know what to expect of the Canucks against the Leafs.

They followed their best game of the season, Saturday’s 4-1 win in Winnipeg, with one of their worst. The titanic shifts in performance are embodied by Miller.

On Tuesday, the Canucks’ leading scorer from last season had four shots on net, six hits, one point in 23:31 of ice time, had an 11-7 shot-differential when he was on the ice at even strength and an expected-goals percentage of 57.

The night before, Miller had no shots, no hits, was outshot 17-4 and his expected-goals was 13 per cent.

“I thought it was a good effort,” Miller said, staying on point after Tuesday’s game. “A little jump in our step tonight pretty much the whole game. We had a lot of good looks, a lot of good zone time and had a little more urgency in our game tonight from the start, I think. We didn’t get two points today, but I think we feel good about the game we played.”

At least it’s something.

Pettersson, on the power play, and Pearson, with the goalie pulled, scored third-period goals as Vancouver pushed back from a 4-1 deficit before Jeff Petry scored into an empty net with six seconds left.

Antoine Roussel had the other goal for the Canucks, who outshot the Canadiens for the first time in the teams’ five games, 39-33.

“I think we had a good full game,” Pettersson said. “I think we battled hard. We talked about it because we weren’t happy with our game yesterday and I think we raised our compete level. It sucks to lose, but it was definitely better today than yesterday.”


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