‘It’s frustrating’: Canucks’ momentum stalls to spoil Miller’s big night

Rickard Rakell scored twice in regulation, Sidney Crosby notched two assists, and Erik Karlsson buried the winner in overtime to lift the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 4-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

VANCOUVER — Rarely does a first-place team leading its division by double-digits punch itself in the face for underachievement as often as the Vancouver Canucks.

Their standards are so high now that leading the Pacific Division by 10 points — and still topping the entire National Hockey League in points, but only fifth in points percentage — is not good enough for the Canucks, who could easily be another five points clear in their division due to the outbreak of mediocrity throughout the top half of the Western Conference since the All-Star break.

Listening to Canuck players and coach Rick Tocchet, it feels like the team’s 5-5-2 February is a disaster. To be sure, it would be worse if conference rivals like the Colorado Avalanche (4-5-1 in their last 10 games), Dallas Stars (4-3-3), Vegas Golden Knights (4-5-1) and Edmonton Oilers (5-4-1) were not also nightly grinding their gearboxes trying to get out of second.

But the Canucks would need to leap into an active volcano over the last 21 games to be in any real trouble in the standings.

In the end, this new standard for the Canucks and their relentless accountability are excellent things even if nights like Tuesday are not.

Vancouver carried the momentum from one of their biggest wins of the season into their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins — and held it for 20 minutes.

After building a 2-0 lead on home ice, the Canucks abruptly stopped playing in the second period, surrendered a tying goal halfway through the third and lost 4-3 in overtime when Erik Karlsson scored on a rebound at 1:42 after Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko had robbed Lars Eller on what was essentially a three-on-one.

“We’re hanging in there but, you know, we need some individuals to up their game,” Tocchet told reporters post-game. “There’s some guys that are just OK, (and) it’s been okay for a while. I think we’ve just been a little sloppy. I don’t know if it’s a tired team.

“The schedule is in our favour (in March) … that we’re not going to be playing as many games. So hopefully, we get some guys’ legs back, and some of the brains back again because we’re a little sloppy.”

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The Canucks blew defensive-zone coverage on the Penguins’ tying goal when Lars Ellers came off the bench and shrewdly zipped a shot stick-side on Demko, who had no stick. The first Pittsburgh goal came from a giveaway by Teddy Blueger, the second on another five-on-three disadvantage after a careless high stick by Tyler Myers.

It was not the same Vancouver team that had dominated the Boston Bruins on Saturday, outplaying them throughout but waiting until overtime to win 3-2.

Tuesday’s regression spoiled another big night for J.T. Miller, who set up Brock Boeser’s power-play goal and restored the Canucks’ lead, at 3-2, with a spectacular shorthanded goal at 10:05 of the middle period after Rickard Rakell had scored twice for the Penguins.

“If we had the mentality of winning the game today, we could have killed them in the second period and instead, we let them back in the game and we only got a point today,” Miller said. “It’s frustrating.

“That’s the next level we’re trying to get to as a group. We’re up 2-0 at home, that should be lockdown point. We don’t need three, four, five and six goals at that point, and we let them back into the game and, inevitably, they won the game.”

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“First 10 or 12 minutes, we have a chance to really step on them and we gave them life,” Myers said of the middle period, which began with the Canucks up 2-0 on goals by Boeser and Nils Hoglander. “We weren’t getting pucks deep. And we have to realize and we have to mature as a group that that’s when we’re at our best. We’ve got to grow as a group. I felt like we gave them a point tonight, an extra point. We’ve just got to come together, talk about it, and keep getting better.

“Looking back, the second period really sticks out.”

Man, these guys could use old Stuart Smalley on the fourth line sometimes just for the personal affirmation: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone-it, people like me.”

There isn’t much doubt that all three of these things apply to the Canucks, just not as steadfastly as they did a month ago.

“It was a lot of turnovers,” Tocchet lamented. “We were self-inflicted — turnovers. That’s really what it was. They made some turnovers, too. It was a turnover-fest in the second period. It was going (to be) who’s going to make less turnovers. They won.”

The Los Angeles Kings visit Rogers Arena on Thursday before the Canucks open Sunday in Anaheim a three-game road trip that takes them to the NHL trade deadline next Friday. After that, the Canucks have a nine-game homestand luxuriously spread over 24 days.

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