A few days ago, an intermission segment during the Vancouver Canucks’ 5-1 loss to the Washington Capitals talked about how the Canucks were “back in the playoff picture.”
It felt a little bit premature to use the P-word about a team that has yet to be .500 even once this season, let alone above .500. Sure, they had won five of their last six games, so there was a faint whiff of rosy optimism emanating from the once malodorous Canucks but experienced fans of the Canucks knew that they needed to wait a little longer
After a pair of 5-1 losses, that optimism is fading fast and the Canucks are once again treading water just above the Western Conference’s flooded basement.
The truly troubling aspect of Thursday’s 5-1 loss to the Florida Panthers wasn’t the loss itself; it was the injury to Thatcher Demko, who left the game near the end of the first period with what appeared to be a serious leg injury. Given that he couldn’t put any weight on his leg as he left the ice, it seems fair to speculate that he might be out for a while.
That’s a major problem for the Canucks. Spencer Martin has been above average in net and earned more starts this season, but the Canucks’ success still hinges on Demko getting back to his old, game-stealing self.
If the Canucks have to rely on Martin as the starter and Collin Delia, with his .884 save percentage in the AHL this season, as the backup for a significant length of time, it might just be time to write off the season.
That said, an injury to a key player can also provide a rallying point for a team, so who knows what might happen? The Canucks seem impossible to predict this season. After all, just last week they were taking down defending Stanley Cup champions and Conference-leading contenders on the road, only to fall flat on their faces as soon as they hit home ice.
“It’s unfortunate how we can play so good one week and then so bad the next week,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau. “It’s pretty mind-boggling.”
All the Canucks could do for long stretches of the game against the Panthers was hold on for dear life. When the Panthers finally opened the scoring, the Canucks tenuous grasp on staying in the game completely disintegrated.
“We had no pushback,” said Boudreau. “We were watching them play.”
So was I when I watched this game.
- A minute into the game, Carter Verhaeghe got in behind Luke Schenn for a breakaway then, a moment later, did it again, only for his second breakaway to be called offside. Like “Road Work Ahead,” it was a sign of things to come.
- The Panthers out-shot the Canucks 18-to-8 in the first period and high-danger chances were 9-0 according to Natural Stat Trick. The only reason the score was still 0-0 with two minutes remaining in the first period was Thatcher Demko, who was outstanding, particularly on a Matthew Tkachuk power play chance where he had to make like Johnny Lawrence and sweep the leg, dragging his left pad behind him to kick the puck away.
- Despite Demko’s best efforts, it all fell apart in just one minute. It started with a Luke Schenn giveaway, as he blindly threw the puck up the boards, expecting a winger to be there, but Dakota Joshua had broken his stick and had bolted to the bench for a new one. Josh Mahura got the puck instead and he centred for Matthew Tkachuk, who was all alone in front. He went to his backhand like Rafiki fighting a hyena to open the scoring.
- On the next shift, the Panthers stole the puck from Ethan Bear on the forecheck, leading to a Gustav Forsling shot that deflected past Demko off of Bear’s stick. I guess the forechecking pressure was too much to bear.
- Look, there’s 82 games of IWTGs every season. Like the Canucks, not every joke is going to be a winner.
- The 3-0 goal was infuriating, as the Canucks’ dreadful defending of a 3-on-2 not only led to a goal against but arguably led to Demko’s injury. The Panthers got four shots in quick succession, as Riley Stillman — inexplicably back in the lineup — utterly failed to play any sort of defence whatsoever beyond vaguely flailing his stick in the general direction of the puck.
- “The fact that he had to make four saves, I’m sure going left-and-right and left-and-right probably didn’t help any,” said Boudreau. “Not being a doctor, I don’t know if it was just one of the shots or by moving back and forth — he was doing his damnedest to try and stop them all and almost did.”
- Andrei Kuzmenko didn’t help either. He did backcheck, which is nice, but he never actually took a man. He skated right past Ryan Lomberg, the player who eventually poked the puck into the net while Stillman stood there like a lump on a log. As I have repeatedly said, there’s no use in backchecking hard if you’re not going to backcheck smart.
- The Canucks got some chances to score in the second period — J.T. Miller came closest with a shot off the post — but it felt like the game was already over. Seemingly every time the Canucks gained the offensive zone, the Panthers had two players on the puck to outnumber the Canucks and turn play the other way. Like a helicopter parent, / it was stifling.
- The Panthers took a 4-0 lead thanks to more dreadful defending. On a 4-on-3, Elias Pettersson took the puck carrier, Tkachuk, keeping him to the outside, but then Tyler Myers decided to take Tkachuk too, because if the Canucks weren’t going to take Tkachuk in 2016, they may as well take him twice in 2022. If you know your maths, you know that means it was a 3-on-1 against the other Canucks defenceman. Unfortunately, that defenceman was Stillman.
- Stillman decided it would be a good idea to engage physically with Brandon Montour, effectively taking himself completely out of the play. That turned the 3-on-1 into a 2-on-0 in front of Spencer Martin. Tkachuk passed to Verhaeghe, who relayed the puck to Sam Bennett, who had an open net. There was nothing Martin could do — like Detective Dormer at the end of Insomnia, he was hapless.
- When the Canucks finally got a goal, it was pretty much an accident. Dakota Joshua won a race to a puck off a lost faceoff with a great burst of speed and moved in 2-on-1 with Brock Boeser. Joshua tried to pass to Boeser but the puck rolled off the toe of his stick and fooled Spencer Knight, sliding five-hole as he pushed across to stop what he expected to be a shot from Boeser.
- That was all of the offence the Canucks could muster. They had 17 shots in the third period but only two of those shots felt like legitimate chances, with Knight turning aside one-timers from Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson to keep the Canucks from coming back even a little bit. You might say that the Canucks were tired from playing four games in six nights…but so were the Panthers.
- One last turnover gave the Panthers a fifth goal. It was Nils Höglander, who fired a cross-ice pass at Quinn Hughes like he was trying to put the puck through the defenceman. Fortunately, the pass was off the mark, so Hughes didn’t get a puck-sized hole in him. Unfortunately, the puck banked off the boards to Tkachuk, who set up Bennett for another easy goal.
- “We were outworked,” said Boudreau bluntly. “They came at us and you could see them passing our guys coming back. They were skating faster…We knew that this team, on turnovers, if we didn’t get the puck deep, they’re the best transition team in the league. They take off right away. When we weren’t getting it deep, we weren’t catching them because we’re not as quick as them.”