Just when it seemed like the Vancouver Canucks had left “moral victories” in the past, they embarked on a road trip against the best teams in the NHL.
On Tuesday, they may have lost 5-2 to the Florida Panthers but they racked up 44 shots on goal against the team with the second-best record in the NHL.
On Thursday, the Canucks faced the only team ahead of the Panthers in the standings, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sure, they lost 4-2, but they limited the Lightning to just 21 shots on goal and were only down by one goal in the final five minutes before an empty-netter sealed the game away.
They hung with two of the top teams in the league in the last two games; as moral victories go, that’s not bad for a Canucks team that was scraping the bottom of the NHL standings just over a month ago.
The trouble is, the Canucks need actual victories. As much as they went on a fantastic run in their first nine games under Bruce Boudreau, they were in such a hole that they can’t afford to let points slip away. There are five teams between the Canucks and a wild card spot and most of those teams have at least two games in hand on them.
“We need to win,” said Matthew Highmore bluntly. “We’ve got to find a way on this road trip to get some wins.”
The optimistic view of these last two games is that they were right there competing with the Panthers and Lightning. The pessimistic view is that they lost by a combined 9-4 score, never led in either game for a single second, and that the Panthers and Lightning only needed 26 and 21 shots to put the Canucks away because they are elite teams and the Canucks are very much not.
Against teams like the Panthers and Lightning, you can play really well but any mistakes you make are frequently costly.
“The margin for error is really, really little,” said Highmore. “These are tight-checking games, they’re not wide open. You have to take your chances when you get them and you have to limit the opposition as much as you can.”
Boudreau took a balanced approach to his view of the game, seeing both the positives and the negatives.
“I liked the compete. I thought we were much better than the other night, for sure,” said Boudreau. “Any time you can limit that team to 21 shots — I don’t know what the chances were but I know they didn’t have a lot of them — I think you’ve done a good job.
“At the same time, we have opportunities and we have four power plays and we don’t get anything. And that’s my fault for putting the same guys back out there all the time but I think that’s got to get better.”
If this road trip was meant to be a measuring stick, the Canucks have come up short so far. Honestly, they’re higher up on the stick than I might have expected. I respected the effort when I watched this game.
- Boudreau’s point about the power play is a big one. It’s not just that the Canucks didn’t score on any of their four power plays against a middle-of-the-road Lightning penalty kill, it’s that they only managed one shot on goal. They had 12 shot attempts but 7 were blocked and 4 missed the net. When the goaltender only has to make one save in eight minutes of power play time, something’s wrong.
- This was a 2-2 game at 5-on-5. The big little difference in the game was that the Lightning got a power play goal and the Canucks didn’t.
- The least surprising thing happened: Steven Stamkos opened the scoring with a one-timer goal from the left faceoff circle. It came off some slick passing, as the Lightning took advantage of the more aggressive approach of the Canucks to pull apart the framework of the penalty kill to create all kinds of space for Stamkos to blast the puck past Thatcher Demko.
- The Canucks replied later in the first off some hard work by Tyler Motte to pick off a pass in the Lightning’s zone. He kept the puck in and sent a shot towards the net that took a deflection to Matthew Highmore, who sent the puck — yes, I’m going to say it — more high, putting the puck just under the bar with a beautiful shot past a Juho Lammikko screen.
- I’ve seen enough of Pettersson as the net-front presence on the power play. I get why they tried it but it plays against pretty much every single one of his strengths as a player, especially because the Canucks so rarely use him as a down-low playmaker. If he’s going to be in that role, the Canucks need to get him the puck below the goal-line more often.
- Honestly, this was a really strong game from Pettersson. He had seven shot attempts; the only issue is that just one of those shot attempts hit the net. He had great chances but missed the net, like on this partial breakaway in the second period. The good news, however, is that he's getting those chances: he's going to the net, he's playing in the dirty areas, and he's getting shots off. For some reason, the finish just isn't there right now.
- “I can't talk for him,” said Boudreau. “I just know that when I played when I was in a slump, it was usually because I was trying to be too cute: trying to pick the perfect spot, trying to make the perfect play, rather than get the puck back, shoot it, hit the net, no matter where you're shooting it from. You get six or seven shots on goal, usually, at the end of the game, you find yourself with a goal.”
- Pettersson was moved to left wing with Bo Horvat and Conor Garland and that line dominated puck possession. While they were on the ice together at 5-on-5, shot attempts were 17-to-4 for the Canucks, even as they were matched up primarily against the Lightning’s first line. They were the Canucks strongest line of the night, creating chance after chance but just couldn’t beat Andrei Vasilevskiy.
- Boudreau disagrees with that assessment: “Lammikko’s line was easily our best line tonight. They had chances, they were on for one goal against — but they’re playing against, for the most part, Stamkos and Point and Kucherov.”
- The fourth line was quite good — they scored both of the Canucks’ goals in this game — but they really had no business being used against the Lightning’s best players. They were badly out-shot when up against Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, and Brayden Point because of course they were. And them being used against top competition — with the third pairing of Brad Hunt and Tucker Poolman — led to a Benjamin Franklin goal.
- A Benjamin Franklin goal. You know, a key Lightning goal. You get it.
- The Lightning were all over the Canucks leading up to the 2-1 goal. Poolman wasn’t able to get to Killorn behind the net and he centred for Cirelli, who kicked the puck up to his stick and sent a backhand under Demko’s glove. No one took Cirelli’s stick, by which I mean that no one tied up his stick with their own stick, though I’m sure flat-out stealing the stick would have also prevented the goal.
- Even if the fourth line was playing well, Lammikko should not be getting more minutes at 5-on-5 than Garland. Motte should not be getting more minutes at 5-on-5 than Horvat. Highmore shouldn’t be getting more minutes at 5-on-5 than Pettersson. Garland, Horvat, and Pettersson were dominating at 5-on-5 and should’ve been given more ice time but instead were near the bottom among Canucks forwards at even-strength.
- I want to be so clear here: the fourth line was great in this game. I really liked the way they played, particularly when they were lined up against bottom-six competition, where the speed of Highmore and Motte made a big difference.
- “We're just trying to chip in any way we can, whether we kill penalties, block shots, score a goal, take a hit to make a play, you know, anything we can do to contribute to winning,” said Highmore. “That's the most important thing right now and we're just playing hard and playing off each other and hopefully we can keep that going.”
- Late in the first, Brayden Point got big mad at Conor Garland after what seemed like a relatively innocuous hit. It almost seemed like Point was using the Michael Jordan tactic of finding something to be offended by to inspire him. Or maybe Point was itching for a fight and was really excited to finally see someone on the ice smaller than he is.
- Random aside: did this shot by Kucherov hit the top of Demko’s water bottle? It kinda looks like it. Weird.
- Did Corey Perry intentionally knock the Lightning net off its moorings as the Canucks were threatening off the rush? Of course, he did. It’s Corey Perry. He is the master of accidentally-on-purpose. Hooking his arm around the post there is practically instinctual for him at this point.
- The Lightning made it 3-1 off an awkward play at the Lightning blue line. Hughes swept in to try to keep a puck in at the line, which would have been a good time for Tucker Poolman to back up conservatively into the neutral zone as a safety valve or for Horvat coming off the bench to hang back. Instead, Poolman stood still and Horvat rushed into the offensive zone. When Hughes couldn’t control the bouncing puck, the Lightning got a 2-on-0 breakaway.
- Hughes’ response was to chuck his stick down the ice, which you’re definitely not allowed to do, but I get it. Not everyone has a reach like Tyler Myers or extendable arms like Inspector Gadget. It didn’t work anyway: Boris Katchouk — a Tkachuk brother from the mirror universe — finished off a back-and-forth passing play with a nifty flip shot off the toe of his stick that fooled Demko.
- Motte got the Canucks within one with a fantastic goal. Lammikko and Highmore battled below the goal line, with Highmore getting the puck free to Motte at the side of the net. With no room to take the puck out front, Motte instead went between his own legs and flipped the puck over Vasilevskiy. It was the best between-the-legs move since Nate Robinson.
- That was, as Don Taylor would say, as close as they would come. Point put the puck into the empty net to end any hope of a comeback.