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IWTG: Canucks fall to last place in the North Division for the first time this season after loss to the Senators

Mental mistakes defined the Canucks' 6-3 loss to the Senators.
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The Vancouver Canucks looked tired in their 6-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

This loss stings a little more than most.

That’s partly because these four games against the Ottawa Senators were supposed to be the winnable games in their schedule that would propel the Vancouver Canucks back into the playoff race and, instead, they lost three of four.

Mainly, however, this loss stings because it means, for the first time all season, the Canucks are in last place in the North Division.

Sure, the Canucks have seven games in hand on the Senators, who just leap-frogged them in the standings, but it still doesn’t feel good to see the consensus worst team in the division one point ahead of the Canucks.

The Senators were expected to be bad this season. They’re clearly rebuilding, with young, but raw, talent throughout the lineup. They’re right where they’re supposed to be in the standings, poised to pick high in the draft to augment their young core.

The Canucks, on the other hand, were supposed to be taking the next step. After coming one game from the Western Conference Final in the playoff bubble, some pundits had the Canucks as the best team in Canada. They shouldn’t have, but they did.

When NHL.com polled 15 pundits for season predictions, all but one had the Canucks as a playoff team. Four of their writers had the Canucks winning the North Division. Two of them even had the Canucks going to the Stanley Cup Final, though at least none of them picked the Canucks to win the Cup outright.

Are the playoffs out of the question? Not quite yet, but the odds are long and full of terrors.  

The adrenaline that seemed to carry them through their two wins over the Toronto Maple Leafs appears to have completely worn off. They looked fatigued on Wednesday against the Senators, both physically and mentally, and who can blame them?

Even setting aside that almost the entire team tested positive for COVID-19, any team would be fatigued in their sixth game in a row with only one day of rest between each game. That’s especially true at this point in the season, when even teams that didn’t face a contagious respiratory illness are rarely 100% healthy.

After the game, the Canucks acknowledged the fatigue but refused to use it as an excuse for their performance.

“It’s tough to say,” said Tyler Myers when asked about fatigue. “I don’t think that’s the reason we’re making some of the mistakes we’re making.”

“As a player, you never use that as an excuse,” said Alex Edler. “When you dress for a game, there's no excuses. Sometimes you feel great, sometimes you might not feel that great, but then you've got to find a way to get your legs, maybe play simple, smarter.”

“I thought we looked a little tired tonight, to be honest, physically. I thought we looked mentally tired too,” said head coach Travis Green. “But there's no rule in the league that you can't win when you're tired.”

Yes, Green invoked the same trope that allowed a golden retriever to play basketball: there ain’t no rule.

Regrettably, just because something isn’t against the rules doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. The Canucks did not win when they were tired but it was still exhausting when I watched this game.

  • The game got off to an awful start for the Canucks when defenceman Victor Mete jumped up the ice and had a lane he could’ve piloted the Ever Given through. He split the defensive pair of Tyler Myers and Olli Juolevi in the same sense that Hawaii splits California and Australia. Mete sailed up the ice and beat Thatcher Demko on the glove side to open the scoring.
     
  • “It's a D-man, for one, so I think you have to look at the whole play and where the breakdown, actually was,” said Myers, seemingly a little irritated. “We can't have D-men beating us up the ice.”
     
  • In other words, Myers was blaming the forward for not taking Mete. Admittedly, Jayce Hawryluk did not backcheck hard enough — or at all — on Mete and deserves some scorn on the goal, but that doesn’t excuse Myers for abandoning the middle of the ice to chase a player who was never going to receive the puck, basically hanging his D partner, Juolevi, out to dry. Even with the defenceman jumping up, it was a 2-on-2 situation.
     
  • Fun with rules! At one point late in the first period, Thomas Chabot dropped his stick. His teammate, Brady Tkachuk, picked it up with his own stick, grabbed it, and attempted to hand it to Chabot. Some might suggest this is a penalty — you can’t play with two sticks! — but rule 10.5 reads, “A player who participates in the play (i.e. checks or prevents the movement of an opponent or who plays the puck) while carrying two sticks...shall incur a minor penalty under this rule.” Tkachuk never participated in the play while holding both sticks, therefore, no penalty.
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  • Things went fully off the rails in the second period. The Canucks were so flat footed to start the period that they had to roll up their toes to fit them into their skates. 
     
  • “I actually thought we showed a little bit of mental weakness in the beginning of the second period with some of the plays we made,” said Green. “The first three goals, we just kind of handed them to them with bad passes, bad turnovers, bad coverage, and all of a sudden six minutes into the period, we've given up three.”
     
  • My wife has been watching the medical drama New Amsterdam. In one storyline, an old surgeon still has all the knowledge and experience to perform surgeries but his body is failing him. Anyway, Chris Tierney easily out-battled Alex Edler in front of the net for a rebound to make it 2-0 for the Senators a minute into the second period.
     
  • There’s simply no excuse for the dreadful turnover by J.T. Miller that led to the third goal. He threw the puck across the slot with a backhand pass with multiple Senators between him and his intended target. To make matters worse, Miller stopped skating after Tkachuk picked off the puck and threw a shot on goal, so Tkachuk easily got past him for the rebound, evaded a Quinn Hughes stick check, and centred for Josh Norris.
     
  • The Canucks pushed back and, after some strong work by Nils Höglander down low, Myers got the puck with three full Mississippis to walk in from the point, wait for traffic to get to the front of the net, and pick his spot on Marcus Högberg to make it 3-1.
     
  • The pushback didn’t last. Quinn Hughes lost his footing on the rush, leading to an odd-man rush the other way with Zach MacEwen covering on defence. MacEwen ended up in no man’s land, covering no one, and even backed up into Demko as the goaltender tried to scramble across to stop a Chabot rebound. When it comes to no man’s land, MacEwen is no Wonder Woman.
     
  • The Canucks got themselves back within two thanks to some indecision from Högberg and a strong forecheck by Tyler Motte. He flipped the puck in behind Högberg, then stole it from the goaltender when he was too slow to leave his net. With Högberg scrambling back, Motte centred for J.T. Miller, but Jake Virtanen darted in to intercept and hit the open net for his fifth goal of the season. 
     
  • Before the end of the period, Tkachuk restored the three-goal lead, taking advantage of a bad change by his own team. With the puck in the Senators zone, Ryan Dzingel inexplicably went for a line change, but it worked out: the Senators won the puck along the boards and Tkachuk, fresh off the bench, was in alone for a breakaway, beating Demko under the glove. 
     
  • The most entertaining part of this game was when Matthew Highmore’s stick got caught in a gap in the boards behind the Senators’ net with two-and-a-half minutes left in the second period, then stayed there for the rest of the period like an invisible hockey player was holding it. At one point, Travis Boyd shot the puck around the boards and it got stopped up by Highmore’s stick. Boyd jumped onto the loose puck and nearly scored on the wraparound. I like to think Highmore would have been awarded the assist.
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  • Look at that stick wobbling around. Delightful. Look, you have to take your entertainment where you can get it in a game like this.
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  • Thatcher Demko gave up five goals on 32 shots, which isn’t great, but it’s also hard to blame him given how dreadfully the team played in front of him. He pulled out some incredible saves in the third period, particularly on one Canucks power play where they gave up three fantastic shorthanded chances. When your goaltender is the best player on your power play, something has gone horribly wrong.
     
  • Demko’s best save came after the Senators scored an empty net goal to make it 6-2. He was still giving it his all despite the score and, when the Senators got yet another 2-on-1 rush, Demko went old school like Chengdu Shishi, stacking the pads and throwing his left pad up in the air to rob Tierney.
     
  • Moments later, Brandon Sutter scored a goal off a completely unassuming play. He skated over the blue line, cut across to the right wing, then flung a wobbling shot back against the grain that fooled Högberg. It was a sobering goal, because it reminded everyone that Högberg is the Senators’ third-string goaltender and should be easier to score on than the Caanucks have made it look over the last few games.
     
  • At this point, it feels like the Canucks have to do something different, like get one of their prospects into the lineup. Kole Lind and Jack Rathbone are both available and could bring an infusion of youthful energy — any energy, really — and skill. 
     
  • “We’re the ones that watch the players everyday when they skate and trying to figure out when they’re ready and if they’re ready and putting them in a position to succeed,” said Green when asked about Lind and Rathbone. “I like our young guys, I think we've got a good young stable of players that hopefully I'm excited to coach in the future, but we've also got to make sure that we do right by them and put them in a spot to succeed.”
     
  • For anyone disheartened that Green seemingly ruled out putting Lind or Rathbone in, Green added, “If I think they can help us win, they’re going in, I can tell you that.”