VANCOUVER — OK, so it turns out the Vancouver Canucks are not going to run the table and win their final 19 games to make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It took all the way until Game 3, on Thursday, for the Canucks to remind everyone of their imperfections as Vancouver lost 3-0 to the last-place Ottawa Senators after emerging this week from their COVID-19 crisis with two wins against the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Canucks’ biggest advantage in those victories, besides emotion and adrenalin, was provided by goalie Braden Holtby. Vancouver starter Thatcher Demko, whose return from the coronavirus took a couple of days longer, started Thursday for the first time since March 24 but was unable to outplay Ottawa goalie Matt Murray.
To be fair, Demko would have needed to be perfect just to match Murray, and goaltending wasn’t the Canucks’ issue against the Senators. Special teams were.
Vancouver coach Travis Green admitted after the morning skate that he had been going “back and forth” whether to practise or rest his team between games after a total of 21 players tested positive for COVID-19 and mostly spent the last two weeks trying to get better.
Thursday’s game should tip the scales towards practice, although Green said afterwards he would still be resting some players Friday as the Canucks get ready for the second of four straight games against the Senators, on Saturday.
The Canucks looked poor Thursday — and their results were awful — on both the power play and penalty kill. Despite a decent push in the second half of the game and outshooting Ottawa 27-14 at even strength, Vancouver was unable to play itself back from the two power-play goals it surrendered in the first period when the Canucks were taking three straight penalties.
Sure, there was an element of luck to both as Nick Paul bounced a shot in off teammate Tim Stützle at 9:17, and Drake Batherson made it 2-0 at 15:57 from a pass that caromed fortuitously to him off the skate of Canucks defenceman Tyler Myers.
But bad luck had nothing to do with a frigid Vancouver power play that went 0-for-4 and wrung only six saves from Murray in eight minutes of advantage time.
The Senators’ 29th-ranked road power play finished 2-for-4.
“That was the difference in the game,” Green said. “They get two power play goals and we don’t. We gave up a couple of (shorthanded) chances as well on the power play. When you give up two, and you don’t get any and you lose 3-0 with an empty net, that’s a big part of the game.”
The Canucks haven’t practised yet since returning Sunday from the biggest COVID-19 outbreak of the National Hockey League season. Wary of the energy levels among his still-recovering players, Green gave his team days off Monday and Wednesday. The power play looked like it could use practising.
“That’s one thing we have been practising,” Green said. “That’s not an excuse. We’ve practised every morning skate on the power play, so it hasn’t been lack of practice there.”
The Canucks’ emotional energy against the Leafs made up for whatever shortfall of physical energy the team had after its ordeal. But in the first period on Thursday, Vancouver looked at least a little like a team of COVID-19 survivors, a step behind the Senators and just generally not sharp.
“I thought the first period was probably the one period (so far) it felt like maybe we were off,” Green said. “We took three penalties, and that really takes some momentum out of your game. And obviously you’re down 2-0 that makes you feel a certain way. But I thought we had some good energy.
“I thought we still had a few players that need to play better, though. At our top (of the lineup) we had a couple of guys, and in our bottom, that need to step up and play better at this time of year. But I thought we had good energy. I thought our compete level was pretty good.”
Green didn’t name names and we’re not going to guess whom he had in mind, partly because we have no way of knowing which players are still suffering lingering effects from their illnesses. There have been enough media guesses, with varying degrees of accuracy, about the health of players and their families.
“I don’t know if anyone’s really at 100 (per cent),” Demko admitted. “COVID took a toll on us and obviously it’s tough taking that much time off. But you’ve got a job to do, come in and win some games here. That’s what everyone’s geared towards.”
After Holtby faced 79 shots in just over 48 hours against the Leafs, Green chose to get Demko back in net. The Canucks’ starter didn’t rejoin the team until Tuesday, and on Thursday stopped 22 of 24 shots.
His post-game Zoom call was the first time Demko has spoken with reporters since he agreed to a five-year, $25-million-US contract extension on March 31, then got sick.
“I struggled with it,” Demko said of COVID-19’s aggressive P.1 variant. “I think a lot of guys did. It was tough on the body. The biggest thing for me was just some fatigue, just the body aches and some of the brain fog stuff that you’ve seen in the media… stuff that comes with COVID. I just wanted to make sure I was feeling better before I got back in the lineup and obviously it’s a tough situation for everyone that was dealing with it.”
There is still the tough situation in the standings, too, as Thursday’s loss left the Canucks 10 points back of the Montreal Canadiens with four games in-hand in the race for the final playoff spot in the Canadian division.
“We kind of had a sluggish start,” winger J.T. Miller said, meaning Thursday’s game. “They kind of outskated us to some pucks and drew penalties and found a way to capitalize on some bounces. We were kind of chasing it a little bit.”
There’s a lot more chasing to do.