NEW YORK – The Vancouver Canucks spent another night chasing. But by the end of Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers, they were chasing without leading goal-scorer Andrei Kuzmenko.
The 27-year-old dynamo, whose excellent first season in the National Hockey League just earned the Russian an $11-million, two-year contract extension, played only four third-period shifts for new coach Rick Tocchet and finished with his lowest ice time (12 minutes) since Nov. 15.
Kuzmenko wasn’t an exception on Wednesday, but he was the best example yet that the Canuck landscape has changed with the arrival of Tocchet, who is quicker to reprimand and less discriminating while doing so than previous coach Bruce Boudreau.
“We had some guys, we had four or five guys, that were just, they weren’t good,” Tocchet told reporters after his team played about half as well as it did in Monday’s overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils. “Listen, I played the game; I’ve been bad myself. But if you’re bad and you don’t have it, you’ve got to make sure that you get the puck in deep or you’re in good position. You can’t be bad at every area, and I thought we had five guys that were just not good.”
Asked specifically about Kuzmenko, the 22-goal scorer who was dropped off the Canucks’ top line after the first period, Tocchet said: “Yeah, he wasn’t good. He was spinning everywhere. I mean, it’s just not him. But you know, he’s a young kid. He’ll learn.”
The forward trio of Kuzmenko, Sheldon Dries and Dakota Joshua spent most of the third period on the bench. By contrast, Tocchet’s energetic fourth line of Curtis Lazar, Nils Aman and minor-league callup Phil Di Giuseppe had seven third-period shifts and all three players finished with more ice time than Kuzmenko.
Although fans will be debating Kuzmenko and Tocchet until former Vancouver captain Bo Horvat takes the opening faceoff for the New York Islanders against the Canucks on Thursday, semi-benching Kuzmenko made a clear statement about culture and accountability – two of general manager Patrik Allvin’s buzzwords since he arrived in Vancouver one year ago.
This is the job he hired Tocchet to do.
“We’ve got to value little plays,” the new coach said, speaking about all of his players. “Wall plays when you have nothing and the puck has to go deep, there’s bad habits that … we have to get rid of. There’s just some value plays … that’s team identity, and I think sometimes we overlook. We’re looking for the result; we want to score the goal. But there’s a lot more to scoring a goal. It could be chipping a body, it could be winning a battle, it could be boxing a guy out.
“We want to go from A to Z too quick. We’ve got to go through the progression. Tonight it showed that if we don’t value certain plays, they’re going to be tough games to win. You’re always going to play catch up.”
Terrific for all but a few minutes of the New Jersey game, the Canucks trailed 2-0 in the first nine minutes against the Rangers and 3-1 early in the second.
The Rangers have one of the best goalies in the world in Igor Shesterkin, the third-best defensive record in the NHL and have lost just two of 20 games they have led into the third period.
They are not a team to chase, but the Canucks forced themselves to try by surrendering easy goals early.
Veteran defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson was caught going the wrong way on the opening goal when the speedy Rangers turned a two-on-one into a two-on-zero that ended with Chris Kreider tapping the puck behind Spencer Martin at 6:53.
Two shifts later, after Tyler Myers iced the puck and the Canucks lost the ensuing faceoff, everyone wearing a Vancouver jersey stood watching as Kaapo Kakko centred to Filip Chytil, who scored uncontested from just above the crease.
After Conor Garland scored for the Canucks against the run of play on a brilliant setup from Quinn Hughes, Vancouver fell behind 3-1 at 6:23 of the second period when Elias Pettersson, Anthony Beauvillier and Brock Boeser were punished for a long shift and bad luck on a double deflection that left Alexis Lafreniere with a gimme.
By that point, Boeser had replaced Kuzmenko on the top line. But Boeser, too, appeared to draw criticism from Tocchet afterward for an offensive-zone faceoff play late in the game when “we have two guys that don’t screen on the draw.”
“Sometimes there’s a play to be made, but a lot of times you just have to live to fight another day,” Canucks leader J.T. Miller said. “I think we need to do a better job of that.
“I thought that we had a really slow start. We just weren’t on our A-game tonight. We responded well after they had their pushes, but I think we can do better tomorrow, that’s for sure. I think we need to worry about having a better start.”
But, as Garland said, standing in the visitors’ dressing room at Madison Square Garden: “It shouldn’t be that hard to get ready in this building, right?”
Pettersson and Vasily Podkolzin, with his first goal of the season two games after his recall from the American Hockey League, scored for the Canucks to keep them close.
“We hung in there, yes, but did we truly make a push?” Lazar asked. “We’ve got to find a way to dictate the play and kind of weather the storm, and that’s by buying into predictable hockey. I think you saw in the first period, and the second, too, just some plays where we’re not getting the puck in deep, and then (problems) compound.
“We have to understand that we don’t have to hit the home run each and every shift. Just chip away. A nothing shift sometimes is a good thing when you just stay patient, especially on the road. That’s big. You kind of have to stick around until you get your chance. It’s all learning.”
These are hard lessons.
• Vancouver defenceman Luke Schenn, a key trading chip ahead of the March 3 deadline, returned from a second-period injury but struggled through the third period, unable to sit at the bench between shifts. Schenn may be questionable for Thursday’s game. Hughes is expected to play in a full visor after getting his nose broken on the first shift of the third period by a puck lifted by Ranger Barclay Goodrow. Despite missing 11 minutes, Hughes still logged 21:14 of ice time and he and defence partner Ethan Bear were probably the best Canucks.