Halak’s sudden struggles troubling as Canucks try to rally into playoffs

Nico Daws made 36 saves as the New Jersey Devils hammered the Vancouver Canucks 7-2.

The Vancouver Canucks had 10 games in February and, one way or another, goalie Thatcher Demko played in all of them. Only eight of the games he played in were by design.

For the second time in two starts — 19 days apart — backup goalie Jaroslav Halak was awful on Monday, allowing six goals on 14 shots and getting replaced 26 minutes into the game in what turned out to be a bewildering 7-2 loss by the Canucks to the New Jersey Devils.

On Feb. 9 against the New York Islanders, Halak survived just 16 minutes before Bruce Boudreau hooked him after allowing five goals on 12 shots.

Demko, who is having a superb season but is already fourth in minutes played among National Hockey League goalies, has not had the luxury of a work night off since January.

And while Boudreau said Monday he did not think the relief appearance for Demko was onerous, rightly pointing out the Canucks are off until Thursday’s road game against the New York Islanders and play only twice in the next week, the sudden collapse of Halak’s game is troubling.

The Canucks have 27 games remaining and probably need to win at least 18 to complete what would be a miracle march back to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Demko can’t play all of them. Halak has to contribute something.

But including a 35-minute relief appearance for Demko last week, the 36-year-old backup has allowed 13 goals on 37 shots in parts of three games. His save percentage in February was .649 – a darkly appropriate number since his chief achievement was triggering a $1.25-million bonus for hitting his 10th start Monday.

Under better circumstances, the respected veteran who is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer would be an ideal trade candidate for the Canucks before the March 21 dealing deadline. But if Halak’s no-movement-clause isn’t a deal-killer, his startling erosion in form could be.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Boudreau said when asked about using Halak from here on. “But I’m concerned because the last two games he’s been pulled. There’s obviously a level of concern, but he’s a professional. He’s gone through this before and hopefully he’ll bounce back.”

The Canucks have been offensively unsupportive of Halak all season, scoring just 16 goals for the Slovak in his 10 starts. But Monday was mostly on Halak.

Yes, it’s difficult keeping yourself sharp as an NHL backup when you play infrequently. But that’s the job, and Halak has had years of experience at it. And the Canucks, especially erratic the last three weeks, played another one of those games when you wonder how they’re as close as they are in the playoff race and maybe it would be better if new general manager Patrik Allvin just started dismantling the team now.

But the Canucks needed a save somewhere from Halak. They didn’t get it in the first period, when the fast-but-highly-beatable Devils sprinted to a 3-0 lead. And they certainly didn’t get it in the second when, after Vasily Podkolzin’s tip-in goal at 1:36 gave the Canucks some life, Halak tried to defend Jesper Boqvist’s breakaway by retreating behind his goal-line.

“Once the first period was over and what was said, you needed a save in the second period,” Boudreau said. “We scored the first goal (and) I think we’re starting to skate. And then they score that (fourth) one and I think that was a backbreaker. They get the next one in off of one of our guys and then the sixth one, I think (Halak) at that point was done because, I mean, it was just a simple shot that he missed. The fourth goal was the killer to me.”

The most agile Canuck, defenceman Quinn Hughes, made one of the worst pivots of his NHL career to allow Boqvist to get past him and cut through Halak’s crease from the right wing.

The first two New Jersey goals, by Jack Hughes on a two-on-one and Yegor Sharangovich, came after turnovers by Vancouver’s most experienced defencemen: Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers. In Myers’ defence, he blindly played the puck to where a Canucks forward should have been, but struggling sophomore Nils Hoglander had blown the zone early and was on his way back to Manhattan when the puck was turned over.

“I didn’t think the D played well at all,” Boudreau said. “I mean, the whole key was to get (the puck) and move it quick and to play in their zone. And we started playing around with it and screwing around with it in our own zone and it ended up costing us numerous goals.”

The performance was dreadful, and yet still not surprising even after the Canucks earned a 5-2 win Sunday against the New York Rangers. In their last three losses – amid five wins – Vancouver has fallen behind 5-0, 5-0 and 6-1.

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“We talked about it in the morning meeting, the evening meaning, I mean, the preparation for the day,” Boudreau said. “I wish I had an answer to it. I don’t. I’ve racked my brain over why some games we can play so good in the first period, and then other games. . . if there’s going to be something bad, that’s going to happen in the first period.

“I read every important notice to these guys on what this game was all about tonight, and to not come out as well as we’re supposed to come out is shocking to me.”

Winger Conor Garland said: “There’s no excuse not to have your legs. We’re in the NHL; we have a lot of stuff (available) to get ready, whatever you need, to get your legs going.

“We weren’t mentally, you know, sharp enough to handle that speed and that’s on us. We should be a more mature group and be ready to play at the start of the game. I don’t know if it’s legs; I don’t believe in any of that. You’ve got to be ready to play. That’s your job.”

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