SAN JOSE, Calif. – Thursday night in Silicon Valley, the Vancouver Canucks turned in one of their best performances of the season and they still weren’t close to their opponent on the scoreboard at night’s end. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the Canucks' effort in a 4-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks, but this was merely the latest harsh reminder of how much work the team has to do to eliminate errors and improve execution. Ultimately, those two areas did the Canucks in on Thursday as they have on so many nights through the 2017-18 National Hockey League season.
Unlike many recent losses, however, there was purpose in the Canucks play at SAP Center. Let’s be clear about that. They set a season-high with 44 shots on goal including 22 in one-sided second period where the Canucks did everything but score. Where the Canucks effort in some recent losses was most certainly open to criticism, there was nothing wrong with the way the team played in San Jose. But the Sharks had the better goaltender on the night, had a difference-making defenceman roaming the ice and got scoring from throughout their lineup. It’s important to remember, too, that this was a San Jose team without offensive drivers Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl and they still had enough to hand the Canucks their sixth loss in the past seven games.
Playing back to back as part of their fifth game in eight nights with cross-continental travel lumped into the mix, the Canucks were always going to be in tough on Thursday night. When the schedule was released last summer, this was a game draped in a massive red flag. To their credit, though, the Canucks fought through the fatigue and pushed the play for much of the night. That part was encouraging. And with 24 games to go, there has to be more nights that look and feel like this one if the hockey club comes up empty in the win column.
But as the organization goes about the difficult task of trying to climb from the depth of the league standings, Thursday had to deliver a clear message to Canucks management of just how much work still lies ahead. Martin Jones was easily the better of the two goaltenders on the ice. It’s hard to win with inferior goaltending. Brent Burns, far from his dominant best, was still a force scoring what turned out to be the game-winning goal in the second period and adding a third period which pushed the defenceman’s point total to 50 on the season. The Canucks can only dream of a 50-point producer on the back end. And the Sharks spread their scoring getting offensive contributions from throughout their lineup something that hasn’t happened nearly enough in Vancouver this season.
There was no secret to the Sharks' success on Thursday. Despite being outplayed for long stretches, they were never in any danger and simply had the better players in the most-important places. As measuring sticks go, the Canucks need to note that this is a San Jose team headed to the playoffs, but one that is hardly any kind of favourite to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. It’s just a solid, upper middle class team that occupies a spot in that space behind the front-runners in the NHL – waking up today tied for ninth overall in the 31-team league.
The Sharks capitalized on broken Canucks coverage on their opening goal. Took full advantage of a clean faceoff win to score their second and then, with the Canucks trying to build off a dominant second period on the shot clock, stuck the dagger in early in the third with a softie that Anders Nilsson absolutely needed to stop. At that point it was 3-0 and the outcome was no longer in question. To their credit, it was refreshing to see the Canucks push on undeterred and eventually, they got to Jones when Daniel Sedin dashed the Sharks netminder’s bid for a fourth shutout of the season. But more blown defensive assignments allowed San Jose to tack on another goal to round out the scoring.
Following the game, the coach and many of the players pointed to all of the good things the Canucks had done on the night. And who could blame them? If they play that much of the night in their opponent’s end, they’ll give themselves chances to win games like this one. But it’s vital they don’t fall into the trap of thinking they’ll win with no finish, defensive lapses and mediocre goaltending.
Understandably, one of the main talking points to emerge from the night was head coach Travis Green scratching Sven Baertschi. It was a provocative move designed to get the attention not only of the 25-year-old winger, but his teammates, too. The coach is trying to instill a winning program in Vancouver and needs Baertschi to be better, but needs more from everyone wearing a Canucks uniform these days.
That’s why it’s important not to lose the plot in the wake of yet another loss. Sure, the Baertschi storyline is a big one and worth monitoring moving forward. But Thursday wasn’t about who sat out. It was about the 18 skaters and the goalie the Canucks had in their lineup and how that group -- even when playing some of its best hockey of the season -- still isn’t good enough. Thursday’s effort may be something the Canucks can build on for their remaining 24 games, but the outcome underscores how much work the team has ahead of it.