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IWTG: Defensive breakdowns and bad breaks prove costly for Canucks in loss to Blue Jackets

"This one hurts, to be honest. This was one of those games where we could have made up some ground."
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graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

The last time the Canucks faced the Blue Jackets, just one week ago, they suffered their worst loss of the season. Not the worst as in the number of goals they surrendered, or the size of the goal differential. No, this was the worst loss in that it was the most deflating, demoralizing, and disheartening loss.

The Canucks were in control of the game for 52 minutes, carrying a 3-1 lead late into the game. In the final eight minutes, they threw that lead away, giving up four-straight goals.

While the Canucks frequently talk about leaving the past in the past and not dwelling on past performances, those losses have a way of sticking with you, like a shard of popcorn kernel stuck up under your gums.

On Sunday night, the Canucks smartly avoided that situation by never taking a lead. Can’t give up a lead late in the third period if you never take a lead in the first place.

The Canucks are on a knife’s edge right now in the Western Conference playoff race. An overtime win on Sunday saw the Minnesota Wild leapfrog over the Canucks into the first Wild Card spot and the Canucks are tied at 76 points with two other teams, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, for that final Wild Card spot. 

Don’t forget the Arizona Coyotes, hanging around with 74 points.

With just 14 games left in the season, the Canucks can’t afford to throw away winnable games like this one. The Columbus Blue Jackets were vulnerable: coming into the game, they had just two wins in their last 14 games. Their last road win was over a month ago. While the Canucks have injuries, so do the Blue Jackets, missing top players like Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderrsen, and their leading goal scorer, Oliver Bjorkstrand.

The Canucks gave up ground in the playoff race when I watched this game.

  • The Blue Jackets played a hard-fought game on Saturday night in Edmonton and they definitely looked like a team playing their second game in as many nights during the first period. They managed just three shots on goal in the opening frame, none of them from closer than 40 feet. They were staying away from the net like it had COVID-19.
     
  • Unfortunately for the Canucks, Elvis was in the building at the other end of the ice. Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins was back in net for the first time in two weeks, and he shut down everything the Canucks threw at him like a woman on Twitter auto-blocking every man wearing sunglasses in their profile picture.
     
  • Part of the problem was that the Canucks weren’t throwing enough at Merzlikins, getting just six shots in the first period and 27 overall. Too often they over-passed the puck, either because the Blue Jackets were jamming up the shooting lanes or because of a lack of confidence on the part of the Canucks.
     
  • I jokingly asked Green if there were occasions where he felt like the guy sitting in the upper bowl of the arena, yelling “SHOOT!” down at the players. “There was more than one of those, yeah,” he replied with a rueful smile.
     
  • The Canucks also had some bad luck, mostly on the part of Tyler Toffoli. He snuck a shot through Merzlikins early in the second period, but it got swept off the line. Then Toffoli hit the goal post on a nice drag move and deflected a Quinn Hughes slap pass off the crossbar. He was clanking irons like a duffer at Augusta.
     
  • “I should have had three goals, at least, tonight,” said Toffoli. “It's definitely one that I'm gonna think about and feel pretty crappy about, but you've just got to move forward.”
     
  • Before we get to the goals, let’s take a moment to enjoy the physical comedy of Tyler Myers tripping over his own goaltender’s stick. There’s nothing like some good slapstick.
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  • The Blue Jackets opened the scoring in the second period against the flow of play, taking advantage of a defensive breakdown. Alex Edler lost his man, Pierre-Luc Dubois and, instead of getting back to the front of the net, chased him behind. Bo Horvat covered for Edler, moving to Dubois, but that meant there were two Canucks on one Blue Jacket, leaving others open. That’s when Troy Stecher, thinking Tanner Pearson was covering Emil Bemstrom in front, moved to take away the backdoor play to Alexander Wennberg, but Pearson left Bemstrom to take away the pass to the point. Bemstrom was wide open for the pass from Dubois and he beat Demko point blank.
     
  • It was like the Cascade from The Expanse: one thing breaks down (Edler chasing Dubois), then the remaining players get overstressed trying to cover for the initial breakdown, and they break down, until you have a catastrophic failure. “It’s not the thing that breaks you that you need to watch out for,” said Amos on The Expanse. It’s the thing that breaks that eventually leads to the thing that breaks you. Like Ganymede Station, the Canucks were already dead.
     
  • Travis Green didn’t think it was that complicated. “We just left the front of the net,” he said. “We probably should have just faced the puck in the slot. It's something that we talk about a lot. I think it's something that we've gotten a lot better at this season, as far as holding the front of the net. You learn, sometimes you learn the hard way.”
     
  • The second goal was similar in that the Canucks left the front of the net wide open. Hughes chased David Savard behind the net and Tyler Myers left Riley Nash alone in front to help Hughes. That left Antoine Roussel in no man’s land, caught between Nash and Eric Robinson in the high slot. He moved out to Robinson a moment too late, as Robinson’s one-timer beat Demko past Nash’s screen.
     
  • “On the second goal, I didn't like the way 2 D [chased the puck]. [Myers] probably should have held, he knows that,” said Green. “Definitely can't fault [Demko] on either one of those goals, that's for sure.”
     
  • Demko had a great game overall, including a stunning save on Bemstrom to keep the Canucks within two as the Blue Jackets pushed hard to open the third period. He finished the game with 25 saves on 27 shots.
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  • “Thatch made an unbelievable save to keep us in it,” said Horvat. “You need big saves like that from your goaltender and he gave us that, and we had to figure out a way to get him some more goals.”
     
  • Green shook up the lines in the third period, looking for a spark. He reunited former Kings’ teammates Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli on Horvat’s wings and bumped Jake Virtanen up to the top line with J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson. For what it’s worth, the line of Pearson, Horvat, and Toffoli out-shot the Blue Jackets 5-0 when they were on the ice together at 5-on-5.
     
  • The only Canucks goal, however, came on a fantastic individual effort by Elias Pettersson. He was in the box after catching Robinson with an elbow on an attempted reverse hit. “I was trying to hit him with my back and my elbow was out, so he basically skates into my elbow,” said Pettersson, then explained his mindset in the penalty box. “I was angry… I don't know, it woke something up inside of me… I always try to be positive, so I just tried to use my anger as fuel.”
     
  • That anger translated into a fierce goal. An attempted pass back to the point by Boone Jenner escaped the zone entirely and Pettersson turned on the afterburners to beat Ryan Murray to the puck despite starting a good 20 feet behind Murray to start. Murray dove out and tripped Pettersson, but the Swedish star still got the puck on net as he was falling to the ice, beating Merzlikins five-hole.
     
  • The Rogers Arena crowd, already amped up in anger over what they felt was an unjust call on Pettersson (it was definitely the right call), absolutely exploded when Pettersson scored. It was a brilliant goal that should have been the spark that ignited a comeback.
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  • Unfortunately, the Canucks couldn’t muster any more offence. Their best opportunity came on a power play drawn by Hughes. They finally created a one-timer opportunity for Pettersson, with Miller finding him open, but the blade of Pettersson’s stick came right off, skittering into the corner like a cockroach when the lights are turned on.
     
  • “Petey's stick breaks, any other time that goes in for him,” said Horvat. “That’s just the way it's going, but there's no excuses. We’ve got to figure out ways to get that win.”
     
  • That was it for the Canucks. The Blue Jackets clamped down and closed out the game the way the Canucks have struggled to do over their last stretch of games. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canucks had just three high-danger chances in the third period, as the Blue Jackets kept the Canucks to the outside.
     
  • “I thought we took the outside too much and we needed to find a way to get into the inside of the arena and get some shots,” said Travis Green. Well, there’s your problem: the Canucks weren’t even inside the arena.
     
  • “This one hurts, to be honest,” said Green. “This was one of those games where we could have made up some ground, but you've just got to keep going.”
     
  • “As much as this game sucks to lose, we still gotta have short memory,” said Pettersson. “Prepare for the next game and try to win that one, because if we focus too much or if you live too much in the past, it's not going to be good.”