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IWTG: Canucks get embarrassed by the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada

Something has got to change.
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The Leafs wiped the floor with the Canucks on Saturday night. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

In one sense, this game against the Toronto Maple Leafs was just another loss. The Canucks have had too many losses this season and this one didn’t seem too dissimilar from the rest of them on a surface level: they gave up five goals against, like they have eight other times this season.

This loss, however, feels a lot more embarrassing.

Part of it is the venue. When you play on Hockey Night in Canada in Toronto against the Leafs, you’re unavoidably in the spotlight. For good or ill, the hockey world revolves around the centre of the universe, a regular complaint of Canucks fans. 

You just know that the eastern-based hockey media, who regularly report on minor happenings in Leafs practices as if they’re front-page news, are paying attention when you play in Toronto, and Hockey Night in Canada retains its cachet as a cultural institution. Failing to show up for a game on HNIC feels a little bit worse than other games.

The Canucks were also coming off a dreadful 7-3 loss to the Leafs, so should have had plenty of motivation to come back with a stronger performance. 

Then there is all the hubbub surrounding the team’s front office, with fans baying like bloodhounds at GM Jim Benning’s door. It feels like the team is at a breaking point and needed to play well on Saturday to quiet the hot seat news cycle.

So, it wasn’t just that the Canucks lost 5-1, or that they were never once at risk of winning this game, or that they barely looked like they belonged in the same league as the Leafs — it was all those things combined with all of the above that made it the most embarrassing effort of the Canucks season.

After the game, the players tried to come to grips with how their season has fallen apart. Bo Horvat repeatedly said, “It’s not a lack of effort.” Tyler Myers fell back on the phrase, “It’s a mindset,” several times when talking about how the team can snap out of it. In fact, Myers seemed to think that not much actually needs to change.

“Just being a little bit our routes on our forecheck, our stick position on our forecheck. If we tweak a few things along those lines, we’ll have better results,” said Myers. “It’s just a matter of coming together, talking it out, figuring out the little things we have to tweak, and then executing on the ice. We just have to execute a little bit better.”

Is the line between success and utter embarrassment as thin as tweaking a few little things? It’s hard to accept that. This looks like a team with serious, fundamental problems. The Canucks haven’t just been losing — they’ve been getting dominated in every facet of the game.

“I haven’t been good enough, obviously the team hasn’t been good enough,” said Horvat. “We’re going to go through stretches like this and every team goes through it.”

Contrary to that last statement from the Canucks captain, Braden Holtby said, “It’s something I’ve never been through in my career.”

Perhaps Holtby’s been the lucky one in his career, playing for a top-tier Washington Capitals team his entire career. He never had to experience a team repeatedly get embarrassed the way it’s happening for the Canucks right now. He does, however, have a suggestion for how they can break out of this feedback loop.

“I think the only way to get out of it is to get back to work, hold ourselves accountable individually and as a team, and find a way to get on the same page,” he said. “We’re a disconnected group right now and it’s showing. We need to find a way to fight through that.”

Much like I had to fight through watching this game.

  • By the numbers, the Canucks gave up the most scoring chances of the season on Saturday night: 42, the answer to the great question of life, the universe, and everything, which is a bit ironic, because the Canucks had no answer for the Leafs. The Canucks seemed to be beaten to every loose puck and lose every puck battle.
     
  • “They’ve got a quick team. They’re a good team. They deserved to win tonight, they played better than we did,” said head coach Travis Green. “They were quicker and they were faster and made more plays, made more passes. For me, that explains it.”
     
  • Green seemed frustrated, biting off short answers to questions from the media, and it’s hard to blame him given the way his team is playing. “Everything looks difficult for our team,” he said at one point. “Simple plays look hard right now.” The players are making mistakes on basic elements of hockey that, at this point in their careers, shouldn’t need to be coached.
     
  • The Canucks got off to a rough start when Alex Edler took two quick penalties in the first five minutes. The Leafs scored on the first penalty and the Canucks couldn’t create any momentum the other way because of the second penalty. It was the worst start since, “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
     
  • The opening goal was a combination of a fantastic finish by Wayne Simmonds and some truly dreadful penalty killing by Tyler Myers. The giraffian defenceman got caught pressuring too high on Mitch Marner, then focused on taking away the stick of Alex Kerfoot in the slot, who was also being checked by Brandon Sutter, so Simmonds had all kinds of time to pick the top corner over Holtby from a tight angle.
     
  • The goal was frustrating enough without the bizarre celebratory graphic that went up on screen immediately after. “15 power play goals!” exclaimed the graphic, emblazoned with dozens of blue leaves, as Hockey Night in Canada seemingly forgot that it was a national broadcast that was meant to be unbiased. It wouldn't have looked out of place on the Leafs' Instagram.
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  • Auston Matthews made it 2-0 later in the first, catching Jalen Chatfield both flatfooted and too deep in his own zone. Matthews, with a full head of steam from the neutral zone, burned Chatfield with a quick move under his stick, then went under the bar with barely any indication that he was about to shoot the puck.
     
  • That was the start of a very bad night for Chatfield, who was on the ice for all four even-strength goals for the Leafs and was at least partly to blame on several of them. With the home-ice Leafs getting the last change, they got their top two lines out against Chatfield at every opportunity. 
     
  • Chatfield’s inexperience hurt him in bizarre ways. He didn’t touch the puck on a potential offside, so the Leafs immediately turned the puck the other way for an odd-man rush. A moment later, the Leafs attacked again 3-on-2, with Chatfield unable to prevent a backdoor pass for a Zach Hyman tap-in.
     
  • It wasn’t all Chatfield’s fault. The rookie was let down by two veterans. Loui Eriksson, who suited up for his first game of the season, lost Mikko Lehtonen in the neutral zone, and he’s the one who passed to Hyman, who was theoretically being checked by Alex Edler. 
     
  • Later in the game, Chatfield very intentionally touched the puck on an offside — he wasn't going to make the same mistake twice — and the Leafs' Jake Muzzin couldn't help but comment and share a laugh with the younger defenceman.
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  • Before the 3-0 goal, Elias Pettersson had a golden opportunity to narrow the lead to one on a wide open net, but the puck was spinning on edge like a quarter and it just hopped over his stick as he took the shot. On the bench, the cameras caught Eriksson talking to Pettersson, because he’s definitely the person you want to listen to when it comes to missing wide open nets.
     
  • The Canucks had other chances. Pettersson got in behind the defence for a backhand chance and hit a crossbar on the power play in the first. They even scored a goal, as J.T. Miller blasted a one-timer off a Quinn Hughes drop pass. Unfortunately, Nils Höglander was offside — way offside — and the goal was challenged and overturned, which was, of course, way worse for morale than if they had just called the offside when it happened.
     
  • Any hope of a comeback in the third was quickly quashed. Matthews scored again on a giveaway by Holtby a minute-and-a-half into the period. Holtby was visibly upset, apparently with Miller, who barely moved his feet as he came back in the neutral zone, then showed no effort to get to the puck when Holtby banked it off the glass and even less to check Matthews.
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  • “What was said on the ice will stay on the ice,” said Holtby. “That’s a play I’ve made a lot before, but I think it’s not just that play, I think it’s a lot of things to just try to get on the same page. That doesn’t start anywhere else except for individually and I think that is on me to make sure that we get on the same page in things like that.”
     
  • As for Green, he deflected when asked about Miller: “J.T. Miller’s a good hockey player. He shows a little frustration once in a while, that’s the competitive part of him.” That play definitely wasn’t the competitive part of him. That was a different part entirely.
     
  • Simmonds added his second goal to make it 5-0, tipping a Lehtonen shot in when Chatfield couldn’t tie up his stick. It certainly didn’t help, however, that Eriksson left Lehtonen open at the point with no one in the shooting lane to try to help check John Tavares, who already had two other Canucks near him.
     
  • Back when the Canucks were regularly winning games, PITB coined the phrase “snack goal” to denote a goal you give up late in a win that would otherwise be a shutout, so that your opposition doesn’t get too hungry to score goals the next time you play. Frederik Andersen did exactly that, giving up a power play goal to Brock Boeser with two minutes left in the game to break the shutout.
     
  • In the last four games the Canucks have been out-scored 23-to-8, giving up 5+ goals in every game. It’s been ugly, it’s been embarrassing, and something needs to change.