VANCOUVER — “We, like fans, as people that watch the game, are going: ‘Why the hell don’t they start better?’ We would love to know the answer. I just reiterated it today and it’s something that you have to remind the guys. . . almost on a daily basis, ‘Let’s be ready at the drop of the first puck.’”
Bruce Boudreau’s words were barely out of the Vancouver Canuck coach’s mouth when his team was outshot 13-1 Sunday night in the first 7 ½ minutes against the Tampa Bay Lightning. By that point, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions had scored twice – one goal for each point they collected in a 2-1 win at Rogers Arena.
Sunday was the one day a year – after clocks are moved forward an hour for daylight savings time – when it’s almost OK to be late for something. But the Canucks long ago burned through their late-for-work passes.
They have lost only nine times in regulation in 35 games since Boudreau took over as coach three months ago. Their 21-9-5 record is remarkable. But also surprising, considering these are National Hockey League professionals and all, in five of those nine losses the Canucks have been outscored by a total of 15-0 by different stages of the first period.
Their tardiness Sunday was again perplexing and unsurvivable against a Lightning team that had lost three straight games on its Western Canadian tour and was desperate to avoid the champions’ first four-game dive in 25 months.
“There’s nothing more you can do other than warn them, show them, tell them,” Boudreau said after the game, having warned his players after the morning about the perils of another poor start. “And then instead, the other team came out harder for the first 10 minutes. I think they had 14 shots in the first 10 minutes and then I thought that we finally said, ‘OK, let’s wake up.’
“Sometimes when you’re playing Stanley Cup champions and they’ve got a 2-0 lead, they’re just not going to relinquish it.”
Not when you have the best goalie in the world, Andrei Vasilveskiy, in his Vezina Trophy form in the Tampa net.
In the final 52 minutes, the Canucks outshot the Lightning 35-18 but only J.T. Miller managed to get a shot that counted past the Russian goalie. And only then, at 5:54 of the third period, because Tampa defenceman Erik Cernak eased up on what he thought would be an icing call, allowing Conor Garland to centre to Miller.
“We don’t ever feel like we’re out of it,” Garland said. “But we just talked in there; we just have to have better starts. That’s what’s killing us right now. If we can just have a good start and play like we did in the second and third, we’re going to win a lot of hockey games.
“Something’s got to change. You know, if you’re not playing well at the start of games, change something in your routine and get ready a different way because these games are too important for us not to start on time.”
The Canucks have displayed a lot of flaws this season, albeit mainly in the first two months of the campaign when they staggered to a 6-14-2 opening quarter. But one consistent failure has been their inability to score first-period goals, a category in which Vancouver is tied for 29th in the NHL with 40 goals in 60 games. They’ve scored 27 first-period goals in Boudreau’s 35 games.
They’ve overcome this deficiency on great goaltending, solid defending and being resilient.
But they trailed 2-0 against the Lightning by the time the game was barely five minutes old.
Victor Hedman was unchecked at the top of the Vancouver crease to tap in Patrick Maroon’s reversal from behind the net 3:26 after the opening faceoff, and Travis Hamonic’s turnover along the boards against Corey Perry left Ross Colton wide open in the slot to make it 2-0 at 5:06.
“It’s obviously not a good start, especially understanding how hungry they were going to be,” Garland said. “They’d lost three straight, so definitely a big game for them as well. To not come out the way we should was disappointing.”
It looked like Garland had snatched a tying goal for the Canucks at 7:58 of the final period when he poked in a puck that Vasilevskiy left uncovered beside his post after a save on Tanner Pearson. But veteran referee Ian Walsh had whistled play dead.
Three minutes later, Walsh and Garrett Rank rescinded a Canuck power play by reversing a high-sticking call against Lightning defenceman Jan Rutta, who was judged upon video review to have caught Tyler Motte in the face on a follow-through.
Howls of protest from the crowd of 18,760 followed both plays.
The Canucks were robbed alright. They were robbed of a realistic chance of winning by sputtering through the first eight minutes and bestowing a two-goal head start to a formidable team that knows how to win.
• Canucks star Elias Pettersson, who had 18 points in his previous 13 games, did not play due to what Boudreau said is an upper-body injury that will keep the centre out day-to-day. Pettersson missed most of last season, and struggled the first three months of this one, after hyper-extending his wrist last March 1. . . Miller’s goal extended his points streak to 12 games, three shy of the franchise record last reached by Todd Bertuzzi in 2002. . . The Canucks reach the mid-point of their seven-game homestand Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils.