LAS VEGAS — The final act of the Vancouver Canucks’ previous regime was humiliating visits to Denver and Las Vegas last November when the failing team was outscored 14-5 by the Avalanche and Golden Knights.
Canuck coach Travis Green and general manager Jim Benning were not fired for another three weeks but, really, those embarrassing losses were the end of the line. There was no coming back from that road trip, which ended with a 5-1 loss in Anaheim.
One year later, with eight new players in their lineup, a new coach in Bruce Boudreau and an entirely rebuilt hockey-operations department under general manager Patrik Allvin, these same two venues may eventually be seen as the re-start to this Canuck season.
Vancouver thumped the division-leading Golden Knights 5-1 on Saturday, validating Wednesday’s 4-3 comeback win against the Stanley Cup champion Avalanche. Combined, that’s a 14-goal swing from how the Canucks handled this itinerary a year ago.
The problem is they’re only slightly better in the standings, 8-10-3 after losing seven games despite leading by two or three goals. But last year at this time, the team was disintegrating. This week, it has come together.
“We’ve got to finish it off tomorrow, then we can look at it like that maybe,” winger J.T. Miller said of the trip finale Sunday in California — this time in San Jose, not Anaheim. “We’re doing a lot of good things and the game is coming. If we go back to three weeks ago, I told you guys it’s a process, it’s not just going to come that quickly. We’re learning as a group and getting better and using our practice time and. . . learning new things, and we’re putting it out on the ice pretty well right now.”
“Putting them both together, I think. . . is what makes it satisfying,” Boudreau said of the Denver-Vegas sweep. “And if we can do it again (in San Jose), then all of a sudden you’ve got a pattern of how to play to be successful.
“I knew that this team could play better than it was playing. You could see that we were getting better in spots, but never complete. And the Colorado game and this game was more complete. You see it, and you just hope you can keep it going and elevate it to a point where you’re doing that automatically every night.”
What would have been impossible to foresee a year ago is that the goalie driving the Canucks would be Spencer Martin, who began last season as the organization’s third-string extra in the American Hockey League, but has been outplaying Vancouver starter Thatcher Demko so far this season.
Martin got the net for both road games, and he made Saturday’s win possible with point-blank saves in the first two minutes against William Karlsson and Mark Stone. The Canucks didn’t get going until Brock Boeser tipped in Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s point shot at 9:22 for the first of three straight power-play goals.
The Canucks outshot the Knights, who won 5-4 Monday in Vancouver after trailing 4-2 in the third period, 25-14 through two periods and were up 5-0 until Jonathan Marchessault whacked a fortunate rebound off the end boards past Martin with 3:17 remaining.
It deprived Martin of his first National Hockey League shutout. He spent most of seven years in the minors before the Canucks’ COVID crisis last winter gave him a chance to prove he could play in the NHL.
In 14 starts for Vancouver, this season and last, he has lost only once in regulation.
“From what I’ve seen in my career to this point, it makes it just more fun,” Martin, 27, said. “I think that’s a big part of what’s driving my motivation every day right now — it’s just that I really am enjoying it. It has been really fun.
“I think it’s super important to play consistent, back to back games, for sure. But as far as our confidence in here, even through the tougher start, we don’t feel like we need to prove anything to ourselves. We know how good we are. It’s just going to take time to string wins together, string good wins together, and build from there.”
Demko is expected to start Sunday against the Sharks, but Martin has earned his greater share of the crease.
“He’s been a rock back there, honestly, ever since last year,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “I was with him a little bit in Tampa when he was on the taxi squad (during the 2021 pandemic season). And if you’d asked me if a year-and-a-half later he’d be having the run he’s on in the NHL, winning games and competing every night and holding us in it, I don’t know if I would have believed it. Tip your hat to him; obviously he’s been doing a lot of work with Clarkie (goaltending coach Ian Clark) and is doing a great job for us.”
The Canucks have won four of their last five games — and, obviously, should have closed out the game against Vegas on Monday — and their sizzling power play is now accompanied by a competent penalty kill, which blanked the Golden Knights on three advantages on Saturday.
Miller finished with a goal and two assists, Bo Horvat scored his 17th of the season 2/10ths of a second before the end of the second period, and Andrei Kuzmenko and Elias Pettersson also scored. Pettersson had nine shots on target, and Quinn Hughes added two assists to a season total that is up to 20, tied for fifth in the league and tops among defencemen.
But, of course, the team has been scoring since the season began. What has gotten better is their defending.