Just seven minutes into the Vancouver Canucks’ last game against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Golden Knights had opened the scoring on their tenth shot of the game. By that point, the Canucks had just one shot on goal as they got off to yet another terrible start in the first period.
“We weren’t ready to play,” said J.T. Miller. “We played our butts off for the second and third but it’s too late.”
Miller referred to their struggles in the first period as a “broken record,” because it just keeps repeating over and over again. It’s been an issue all season long.
The Canucks have scored just 43 goals in the first period this season, the fewest in the NHL. Meanwhile, they’ve allowed 68 first-period goals, the 11th most in the NHL. That minus-25 differential in the first period is a big reason why the Canucks are sitting where they are in the standings, outside of the playoff picture — it’s difficult to constantly be trying to come from behind in the NHL.
"I don't have an answer."
What’s truly troubling is that no one on the Canucks seems to know why they struggle so much in the first period.
“I don’t know why we don’t start on time,” said Boudreau after Sunday’s game. “They had us 10-1 in shots in the first period. I think teams know this and they come out flying and we should be able to know that we’ve got to hold off and play hard in the first period. Usually, when we are in the lead or are tied, we end up winning the game.”
That’s true, at least, when the Canucks can get out of the first period with the lead. They’re 11-2-1 when leading after the first. When they’re tied after the first period, it’s pretty close to a coin flip: 14-12-4.
“I wish I knew the answer to those things — why you're bad in the first and good in the second or good in the third,” said Boudreau after a game against the Washington Capitals in mid-March. “I always just liken it to being ready to play. Once we started to get into it, we started to get better. If you look at our team, the first periods are usually our worst, for the most part, then we get better in the second, and lately the third periods have been really good and that's pretty well the trend.”
Boudreau has even said that he’s never experienced a team struggling this much to start games in his entire coaching career.
“I've been doing this for a long time,” said Boudreau. “You change things up in warm-up, maybe you change the pregame ritual, but I think, quite frankly, in the end, it's on the self of getting ready for the game and understanding how hard you have to play. We didn't play hard enough in the first period.”
“I don't have an answer,” said Boudreau after another first-period no-show against the Calgary Flames in March. “I'd love to be sitting here and saying I've got the answers but I don't have the answers right now.”
Perhaps Boudreau’s lack of answers regarding the Canucks’ lousy starts has something to do with the uncertainty about his future in Vancouver.
"You've got to be ready to play, that's your job."
Or maybe not. The players all seem to agree that the bad starts are on them, even if they can’t pinpoint exactly what’s wrong.
“If I had the answer, I don't think we would be doing this night in and night out,” said Bo Horvat after that same game against the Flames. “We talk about it, it seems like every single game, where we have to be better and it doesn't seem to be happening. Obviously, it comes from within the room — we've got to find a way here because it's slipping away from us.
“If I knew the answer, we'd fix it right away.”
Oliver Ekman-Larsson suggested it was a mental issue for the players after a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and pointed the finger at himself and the other veterans.
“I don’t know if it’s in our head, to be honest with you. I mean, we talk so much about coming out harder,” said Ekman-Larsson. “It's all on the players in that room, especially on the older guys, too. I think we've got to push the younger guys a little bit and set the mood in the room.”
Conor Garland also suggested it was mental after a 7-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils in late February that saw the Canucks give up three first-period goals.
“I would say it’s probably more mentally, we weren't mentally sharp enough,” said Garland. “We should be a more mature group and be ready to play at the start of the game. That’s on us. You’ve got to be ready to play, that’s your job.”
As much as the players have pointed to the mental side of things, it’s hard to not see it as a physical issue as well — as in, the physical makeup of the roster, which lacks speed and puck-moving defencemen. Early in games, especially against faster teams, the Canucks struggle to either skate or pass the puck out of their own zone, with speedy forechecks frequently giving them nightmares.
That results in the Canucks getting hemmed into their own zone and giving up lots of shots and goals. As the game progresses, however, the Canucks either adjust to the speed or opposing teams slow down and are less aggressive — something common when a team has a lead. That gives the Canucks more time and space to break out of the zone.
Canucks' first periods have been bad under both Green and Boudreau
There’s good evidence that the issue lies with the players — the issue stretches across two different head coaches.
The Canucks were outscored by a significant amount in the first period under Travis Green to start the season but that’s no surprise — they were outscored in every period under Green. The first period was certainly their worst but they weren’t much better in the second or third either.
You might expect a coaching change would produce significantly different results and it has, but only in the second and third periods. In the first period, the Canucks have been just as bad under Boudreau as they were under Green.
Here’s the scoring rate for the Canucks by period under both Green and Boudreau, along with their league rank in that time frame.
In the first period, the Canucks are pretty much the same under both coaches. They scored fewer goals under Green and also gave up fewer, but their league rank is pretty much identical.
The big difference comes in the second and third periods, where the Canucks have been significantly better under Boudreau. They score goals at a league-average rate in the second period and a top-ten rate in the third period but it's their defensive numbers that are downright stunning.
Under Boudreau, the Canucks become a much stingier team defensively after the first period, giving up the third-fewest goals against in the second period and first-fewest in the third. That’s right, no other team in the NHL gives up fewer goals against in the third period than the Boudreau-coached Canucks.
Now, perhaps that’s because the Canucks are constantly having to come from behind in the third period, so other teams are less motivated to score goals. Still, the improvement in the second and third from the Green-coached Canucks seems significant.
It does suggest that there's more belief in the room that under Boudreau they can come back when they are trailing compared to the fragile team that seemed to give up when trailing early in the season.
Still, those first-period struggles linger. Why has Boudreau been able to get so much out of this team in the second and third periods but has been unable to get that same type of performance from them right from the opening puck drop?
If it is, in fact, all on the players in the room as they say, then what needs to change? Is it an issue of roster construction? Leadership? Is it just in their heads as Ekman-Larsson suggested, to the point that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?
It seems like it’s too late to do anything about the Canucks first-period struggles for this season but it’s something that needs to get fixed before the start of next season.