Starts don’t get any better than they did for the Canucks in Saturday’s early puck drop in Pittsburgh. But my goodness, things couldn’t have gone much worse over the final 14 minutes as the bottom fell out on the Canucks in their 5-4 loss to the Penguins. Sure, at 3-2-1 it was a good road trip in the standings, but this blog is about the game that was played and quite frankly that third period was a mess.
And I don’t care about the injuries or the length of the road trip or really anything else for that matter. When you have a 3-1 lead with less than 15 minutes to play and the finish line in sight, you have to find a way to get something out of the game. Likewise when you score four goals — especially on the road — you have to make that count for something. The Canucks dropped the ball on both counts on Saturday in what turned out to be a forgettable afternoon for both goaltenders Ryan Miller and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Miller was the story in his past two starts single-handedly earning the Canucks three of four points in New York City, so it’s impossible to lay all of the blame at his feet for the loss to the Pens. One of the Penguins goals came on a 5-on-3 rocket off the stick of Evgeni Malkin who had a hell of an afternoon and the back-breaker saw Linden Vey put the puck in his own net. It’s hard to fault Miller there. But where he worked miracles in the Big Apple earlier in the week, he couldn’t bail his teammates out this time as the defensive structure in front of him crumbled especially on the 4-3 goal that found its way through traffic and ultimately through Miller, too.
Miller’s season got off to such a strong start. He posted four wins in October, but hasn’t matched that monthly total since. He had three victories in both November and December and has despite looking good in his earlier starts on this road trip, the veteran netminder has just one win in January since his return from injury. Since December 10th, Miller has won two of his seven starts while Jacob Markstrom has posted victories in seven of his 11. Just something to chew on.
And I understand that the Canucks are without a few key players and are working youngsters into the mix — and I like what I’ve seen out of the youth movement the past few games. But with that much inexperience in the line-up, the veteran players need to shoulder the load late in hockey games. They managed to do it in Boston on Thursday, but perhaps it was too much to expect two games in a row.
It’s a shame the loss overshadowed Jannik Hansen’s hattrick. He was flying from the drop of the puck and did his best to set the tone with a goal :27 after the opening face-off. He scored again in that period and could have had his third of the game on a breakaway in the dying seconds of the second period. You can’t live in the past, but it’s hard not to wonder what might have been had Hansen extended the Canucks lead there. But they got the 3-1 goal later in the game and didn’t do anything with it, so the missed breakaway is really a moot point now. Hansen had seven shots on the afternoon and is now up to 15 goals on the season. That makes him a shoe-in for 20 and with 33 games to go, he has a legitimate shot at 25 if he continues to play on the team’s top line.
The Canucks can’t use tired legs at the end of a lengthy road trip as any kind of excuse because they were flying in the first period. I can’t recall a Canucks team in recent seasons attacking an opposing blueline with speed the way they did on Saturday. It was Hansen leading the way, but it was Horvat, it was Virtanen, it was Dorsett — and it was seemingly every shift. Taking Prust and Cracknell out of the line-up and inserting Virtanen and Zalewski has made a noticeable difference to the overall team speed the past few games. And as much as Henrik Sedin is the captain and the undisputed leader of the hockey club and will be welcomed back in a heartbeat when he’s healthy, it almost seems as if his absence has seen the Canucks willing to trade chances off the rush rather than relying on the cycle game. It worked for them in Boston but not so much in Pittsburgh. And clearly it’s a dangerous way to play given the defense corps the Canucks ice on a nightly basis.
I thought the up tempo game might play into the hands of Radim Vrbata, but he was quiet on Saturday with no points and just two shots on goal. He’s gone five without a goal (he scored a 5-on-3 goal in Washington in the opener of the road trip) and has just two in his last 20 games. That hardly screams ‘trade bait’. At the other end of the age spectrum, Jared McCann continues to gain valuable experience getting top line opportunities as a teenager, but he has quietly gone a dozen games since his last goal in Detroit on December 18th. And as much as I still like the addition of Emerson Etem a few weeks back, he’s now without a goal and has just one assist in seven games as a Canuck and has yet to score in 26 NHL games this season. He’s young and has promise, but at some point soon he’s going to have to produce.
*Thursday and Saturday marked just the second time all season the Canucks have managed 4 or more goals in consecutive games. They also did it on October 30th in a 4-3 win in Arizona and a 4-1 victory over Philadelphia on November 2nd
*if not for his empty netter (which turned out to be the game winner), I’m not sure I would have known Sidney Crosby played on Saturday
*49 games into their season, the Canucks have beaten two opponents twice: Anaheim and Carolina. Both wins over the Ducks were in shootouts and the most recent victory over the Hurricanes was in overtime. The Canucks have yet to beat the same opponent twice in regulation this season
*the Canucks have just one game left before the All-Star break. They are at home to Nashville on Tuesday night and then off until Thursday February 4th when John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets come to town
*there are 12 Canucks games to go before the February 29th NHL trade deadline. They have 33 remaining on their schedule with 20 at home/13 on the road. Of their remaining road games, the longest road trip is a three-game jaunt to Winnipeg, Nashville and St. Louis in March
Thanks for checking in with the blog. Please help me spread the word by sharing via social media. I’ll have a new blog after the game against Nashville and will try to post a few new items during the upcoming All-Star break. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.