NEW YORK – The Vancouver Canucks are like a car on the highway with the wobbly wheel. They may be able to keep up with traffic for a while, but the only way to reach their desired destination – the playoffs – will be to get on a true roll.
After a month of one step forward, one step back, the Canucks have changed their pattern a little on this six-game road trip, but the team’s quest for consistency and any kind of traction in the standings continues.
While they managed to collect a single point in Sunday’s wildly entertaining 4-3 shootout loss to the Rangers in a Madison Square Garden matinee, the game was a glimpse at the Canucks’ season in 65 minutes. There were strong stretches mixed with glaring defensive lapses and although they controlled play against a good New York team, they couldn’t scrape together one more goal or one more save.
The Canucks have now dropped back-to-back games after posting consecutive victories for the first time in a month. It’s a dangerous dance for a team trying to stay with the playoff pack in the Pacific Division and Western Conference. Single points are better than nothing, obviously, but they won’t allow the Canucks to stay in the mix much longer. For that, the team must find some traction and figure out a way to string wins together.
But maybe that’s easier said than done for this group which appears good enough to avoid any lengthy losing skids, yet is still so often inconsistent from period to period and game to game. The Canucks haven’t lost more than three in a row (Oct. 10 to 14) yet they’ve managed just one sustained win streak (four games from Oct. 20 to 26) in their first 24 games of the season. Even last year’s team, which finished 29th overall, somehow cobbled together six straight victories after the Christmas break.
To their credit, the 2017-18 Canucks have managed to get two of their past three losses beyond regulation time, so they are finding ways to pick up points in a losing cause – something they didn’t do with any regularity in the first five weeks of the season. So, perhaps, it’s a matter of perspective. The Canucks have one outright loss in their past five games, but have managed to win just two of those five. They are 11-9-4 on the season, which is 11 wins and 13 losses with a fistful of single standings points added to the team total.
They have split their first four games on this trip, which continues Tuesday at Barclays Center against the Islanders and are 4-4-2 in their last 10 games. Without finding a way to string wins together, the Canucks are destined to spend most of the season lurching along in the National Hockey League’s slow lane watching as better teams go whizzing by.
“We’ve played three out of four pretty good games here – I don’t look at it like there have been two good games and two bad games,” head coach Travis Green said after practice Monday. “We played maybe our best game of the road trip yesterday (Sunday). A lot of times you play well, you don’t win. A lot of times you don’t play well and you do (win). You have to win a game that you probably don’t play your best in order to get those kinds of streaks, but very easily I think we are capable of getting on a streak here.”
More performances like the Canucks displayed against the Rangers will go a long way in that regard. Their start Sunday was among their best of the season as they outshot New York 11-4 and took a 1-0 lead to the locker room after the opening 20 minutes.
The issue came late in the second period after Jake Virtanen had extended the Canucks lead to 2-0. Instead of getting out of the period with that cushion, the Canucks surrendered a goal to Jesper Fast with 2:20 remaining in the second. That gave the Rangers some life and they struck again just 19 seconds into the third.
It’s those little lapses that happen too frequently that have cost the Canucks on too many nights this season.
“It really is just playing a full 60 minutes,” said defenceman Chris Tanev, back in the lineup for two games now after missing seven with a thumb injury. “It seems we have three of four minutes sometimes – or even a couple of stretches – where the other team takes over the momentum and scores a few goals. The game in New Jersey wasn’t our best, but there was a lot to like in the way we played the Rangers and hopefully we build off that effort tomorrow.”
Wins against the Islanders Tuesday and in Nashville Thursday would make this an overwhelmingly successful road trip. But there’s no point worrying about the Predators and stringing wins together until they have the first one to build on. So their quest to start a new streak begins Tuesday and Michael Del Zotto knows the only way the Canucks will make up ground in the standings is by eliminating the kinds of mistakes they made at Madison Square Garden.
“I’ve been on some teams that have put good streaks together and you have to have everything clicking,” he explained. “If we’re going to win on a consistent basis, we need everyone going and it can’t be just one or two guys that are going to carry the team. I think we’re getting to that point. I think we’re playing pretty good hockey on a day-to-day basis and if we continue to do that we’ll gain a little confidence.
“The biggest thing I’ve found in my nine years in the league is when you have that confidence, you have to keep it. And when you don’t have it, you have to try to get it back as soon as possible. And when you have it, the game comes easy to you and you’re having that much more fun coming to the rink every day and that usually translates into wins.”
The Canucks came close in New York Sunday. A similar effort against the Islanders night might very well be enough for a victory. But as a team they understand the math of alternating wins and losses and are well aware single points are merely a consolation prize for playing just well enough to fall short.
If the Canucks want to remain with the playoff pack at Christmas, the reality of the situation is they simply have to string some wins together. Like that wobbly tire, they need to tighten things up to get back into the fast lane.