LAS VEGAS – The Vancouver Canucks positively answered the elemental challenge to compete and battle for each other to try winning National Hockey League games on Saturday.
But in losing 7-4 to the Vegas Golden Knights, who benefitted from a couple of suspect officiating calls but still outscored the Canucks by five goals in the final 41 minutes, Vancouver left unanswered all kinds of difficult questions about their ability to defend, mental strength, their convictions under head coach Travis Green and whether the team general manager Jim Benning built is actually capable of competing for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In the wake of Thursday’s 7-1 embarrassment by the Colorado Avalanche, Saturday’s game was a referendum on the pride and professionalism of Vancouver players. The Canucks passed that test, building an early 2-0 lead and outplaying the Golden Knights.
But while the “team” response to the debacle in Denver was admirable, the Canucks still made numerous individual mistakes by turning over the puck and misreading plays defensively, and generally displayed the mental fragility of teams on the precipice of a very long fall.
For historical context, consider that the last time the Canucks surrendered seven or more goals in consecutive games, in November of 1997, Pat Quinn was soon fired as general manager, followed by coach Tom Renney. Then Mike Keenan was hired, management became a three-man committee including a natural-resources executive who knew nothing about hockey, and frogs and fish fell from the sky.
Eventually, Brian Burke was hired to solve the chaos and save the franchise in Vancouver.
With the Canucks finishing what has been a faith-testing road trip Sunday night in Anaheim, Green is still the coach and Benning still the GM. But anything seems possible considering what the players displayed in Denver and Las Vegas.
An underperforming team that had, at least, shown improved defensive play gave up its second touchdown in as many games. The Knights started their comeback from an 0-2 deficit with a harsh penalty call in the first period and broke a 4-4 tie on an atrocious one at 7:03 of the third when referee Chris Schenkler called the first penalty of Thatcher Demko’s NHL career after the goalie, sealing off his near post, dislodged the net that had required ice-crew maintenance on its peg earlier in the game.
Even without some of their best forwards, the Knights’ power play scored on both calls as the Canucks collapsed after building a 2-0 lead, then twice tying the game on goals by Nils Hoglander.
“Sometimes I go in and talk to the team, sometimes I don’t,” Green said of his post-game habits. “Tonight, I did. First and foremost, our effort was a lot stronger (than on Thursday) and I told them that, too. There’s some plays that we’d like to have back in the game, (but) the 7-4 score wasn’t indicative of the type of game that it was tonight.”
Veteran defenceman Oliver-Ekman Larsson said: “I thought we came out and showed some heart out there and that’s what we need to do every single night. If we do that, we’re going to be fine.
“I wouldn’t say that we don’t have a lot of confidence in the group, but when you’re losing and letting in a lot of goals, it’s tough to battle back. But we’re trying to stay positive. I think that’s the theme we need going into the next game here (in Anaheim), and just stay positive and keep working hard because I thought the work ethic was there tonight and we deserved better.”
The Canucks probably did deserve better than a three-goal loss.
They generated 43 shots on target and outshot the Golden Knights 30-22 at five-on-five.
But Vancouver still made costly turnovers (by Hoglander and J.T. Miller) that led to goals, and some terrible defensive reads (by Tyler Myers and minor-league call-up Madison Bowey).
And with the game on the line, the Canucks’ putrid penalty-killing failed again when Jonathan Marchessault, with space and an open shooting lane, zipped a puck into the top corner on Demko to break a 4-4 tie at 8:24 of the final period. The result of Schlenker deciding that the cerebral goalie, who has a degree in psychology and never exhibits panic, intentionally dislodged the Vancouver goal while Vegas had the puck in the Canucks’ zone.
“The post had come off a couple times already,” coach Green told reporters on Zoom after his team lost for the seventh time in nine games. “It came off with (Vegas goalie Robin) Lehner, I believe, in the second period. They actually had to go fix the post. On the commercial (break), they had the crew come out to fix it. I mean Demmer, he wasn’t pushing the net off. It wasn’t a penalty.
“There’s definitely a couple calls that should have never been called against us. I don’t usually complain about refereeing, but the call against Demko was atrocious and the call against OEL, the double-minor for roughing, was very questionable for me as well. And they were both critical parts of the game.”
Schlenker and Ghislain Hebert essentially gave Ekman-Larsson an extra minor for instigating and roughing – this infraction doesn’t exist in the NHL rulebook – when the Canuck defenceman confronted Knight Brayden McNabb for clotheslining Vancouver rookie Vasily Podkolzin late in the first period. Ekman-Larsson has never had an NHL fight and absorbed the only punch of the altercation from McNabb, but the Canuck still received a double-minor for roughing to the Vegas defenceman’s single minor.
The material point, however, is that Vancouver’s league-worst penalty-killing surrendered a power-play goal to Evgenii Dadanov – after a foolish hooking penalty by Justin Bailey put the Canucks two-men down – at 19:46 of the first period to start the Knights’ comeback, and another to Marchessault on the third-period winner.
Despite early goals from Tanner Pearson and Miller, who had a monster game but is questionable for Anaheim after suffering an apparent leg injury, the Canucks disintegrated defensively in the final period when the game was still there for them.
Playing with purpose was nice, but the reeling Canucks have so much more than their commitment to worry about.
“It was a good response for sure,” winger Brock Boeser, who managed six shots on net without being noticeable, told reporters. “But at the end of the day, it’s about winning and we’ve got to find a way to win hockey games.”