The first goal scored Saturday in Vancouver became, by night's end, an emblem of what's going wrong for the Calgary Flames – and what's going wrong for the Vancouver Canucks.
Five minutes into the game, the Flames pressed the Canucks, working a delayed penalty. Calgary defenceman Dennis Wideman, in the Canucks corner, tried to bounce a pass back to the point but the puck was mishandled and caromed the length of the ice into the empty Flames net – 1-0 Canucks.
"A perfect pool shot," was the wry observation of Calgary coach Bob Hartley afterward.
It's happened before, to the best of them: Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos in a game last March, and last January it was Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks – Kane's own goal almost identical to Wideman's.
The Flames and the Canucks, however, are not the best of them – and their seasons, after starting strong, are both rapidly unravelling.
After a gift of a goal, the Canucks managed one of their own on a power play but then blew the 2-0 lead, before saving themselves when they wrested a win back in overtime. A win is a win – and it lifted the Canucks back to fifth place in the Western Conference from eighth, which is where they were before the puck dropped against the ninth-place-and-rapidly-fading Flames.
The Canucks had previously lost five in a row and barely beating the Flames does not constitute a definitive end to a slump that starts to resemble the worst of last winter. Vancouver can barely score goals – and it begins with their first line of old men, the 34-year-old Sedin twins and 33-year-old free-agent signee Radim Vrbata.
The numbers look incredible, in a bad way. The Sedins, not long ago, were dominant. As recently as 2012-13, the Canucks with the Sedins on the ice would score two goals at five-on-five for every one scored against them.
The Sedins faded last year, particularly in the winter. This season, the Canucks barely outscore opponents at five-on-five with the Sedins on the ice. The team has 15 this year at five-on-one when the twins skate. That's not even one goal every two games, when the Canucks are led by their best players. Daniel Sedin has one goal at five-on-five this year.
After the narrow defeat of the Flames, Daniel Sedin said their even-strength play has been "on and off." He repeated the latest how-to-fix-this mantra. "We need to get to the net. We have three guys that hang on to the puck. When we're successful, we get guys to the net. It's up to all three of us."
It used to be Alex Burrows causing havoc in front of the net for the Sedins. Rookie coach Willie Desjardins has preferred Vrbata with the twins. Last Thursday after practice, Henrik Sedin said they had been watching a lot of video about the problem. "We're there – but we're not in front," said Henrik. The player nearest the net instead is slightly off to the side, looking for an unlikely tip-in goal.
Against Calgary, it wasn't getting better. For most of the game, the Sedins' line was notably outplayed and outshot when it was up against Calgary's Norris Trophy candidate, Mark Giordano.
Calgary, meanwhile, has become what most people expected before the season and numbers suggested in first two months of the schedule. The Flames won games and ranked highly in the West but on many nights would be outshot. The team has crashed to Earth, like others before them who have defied gravity, and the crash has been a hard one: an eight-game losing streak, and one last road game against the Los Angeles Kings on Monday before Christmas.
The Flames, simply, are not that good. They are young, and they show flashes – but only flashes. They have one of the best defencemen in hockey and a rookie, Johnny Gaudreau, who could become one of the greats. Their coach, Hartley, reached for positives within grasp – the Flames have kept scoring chances against them low the past couple games, but the situation is difficult. "Goals are tough to buy," Hartley said after the game, "and our confidence is very thin."
The natural order of the Western Conference begins to reassert itself, after the unlikeliness of Vancouver and Calgary in the early going. The likes of Chicago and San Jose surge, and Vancouver and Calgary regress to what consensus figured them for in the early autumn: the Canucks a fringe playoff team, and the Flames a Connor McDavid contender.
There remains, of course, a lot of hockey to play. But it does not look good for Western Canada's hockey teams, the Oilers obviously, the Canucks on the edge and the Flames cratering. Like an errant pass, bouncing all the way back into your own empty net. Wideman was frank Saturday night: "It's kind of the way things are going right now."