- Wild ride ends with Pittsburgh winning 5-4 in shootout over Vancouver
- Pittsburgh blows 2-0 lead, Vancouver blows 4-2 lead
- Canucks lose fifth in a row, Penguins win 17th of 20
By mid-October, just two weeks into the 2013-14 National Hockey League season, the Vancouver Canucks had already spiralled out of top trio in the formidable Pacific Division. A nasty November saw the team fall even farther, out of the playoff picture, even if it was still early. Revival came in December and by last weekend the Canucks finally had third place in their grasp, just as they began the toughest six-game stretch of their schedule on the road against the Los Angeles Kings.
L.A., for the first time in the Darryl Sutter era, had lost five in a row and a Vancouver victory would have usurped its rival in the standings. Instead, the Kings manhandled the Canucks and then the next night the Anaheim Ducks snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, or if you like, the Canucks grabbed a loss from the gaping mouth of a win.
So it was, again, the Canucks in the tenuous position of fourth come Tuesday night in Vancouver, welcoming Captain Canada Sidney Crosby and the best of the East, the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was also the same day many of the international Olympic teams were named and after the dust settled Vancouver and Pittsburgh both boasted seven men heading to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
Back at home, only the top three places in a division are guaranteed a playoff position in this new NHL – so they are especially coveted, and while the Canucks can't quite crack the club, stuck outside looking in, the glass is right there for the team to smash and climb through. Losses such as the one to Pittsburgh are not going to get shards of glass flying.
"It's happened too many times," said Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin of blowing yet-another lead.
But asked if the team was fragile, Sedin bristled. "It's not that we don't know what to do. I don't think it's fragile."
The Penguins locker room meanwhile basked in the happy pulse of winning.
"We found a way," said Crosby, sitting in his corner stall. "We've been down the last couple games and climbed back."
Vancouver has done the opposite. Against Anaheim, the Ducks tied it late and won with 0.6 seconds left in overtime.
"A doozy" is how Coach John Tortorella described the loss to Pittsburgh. And he conceded the team is indeed fragile. "Sure it is," said Tortorella. "It's how quickly we get out of it."
The tilt against Pittsburgh began like the L.A./Anaheim punch-ups ended, with an assault on the Canucks net. The Crosby line swept in, then came Evgeni Malkin, a ridiculous one-two flurry when the Canadian and Russian are at their best. Canucks backup Eddie Lack – with Roberto Luongo resting – held steady, as he has so often this year.
Olympian errors were an irony of the evening. Seven minutes into the evening, Pittsburgh dominating, Canucks defenceman and surprise Team Canada pick, Dan Hamhuis, chosen for his reliability, botched a handle on the puck at the Penguins blueline and Penguins rookie, 25-year-old Brian Gibbons grabbed his chance and raced up the ice, unperturbed by a strong Jannik Hansen backcheck, deked and slid the puck between Lack's legs. It was his second goal in just his 11th career NHL game.
The second goal saw the Canucks see some of the November bad luck. Hansen was unable convert on his own breakway and, immediately following, Malkin converted in the slot on a pass from James Neal. On the goal Malkin shrugged off Hansen, who nearly dug the puck away and scored with Canucks rookie Darren Archibald draped on him.
Down 2-0, yes, but the Canucks, despite moments of disorganization, found life, and tilted the ice back towards the Pens, the type of effort that is so praised by give-me-your-all-and-more coach John Tortorella. The shot count and shots attempted began to near even and the Pens looked a bit less powerful and then some luck, something you don't see every day, a real boneheaded mistake from none other than Crosby. With five minutes left in the frame, Crosby behind his own net, under pressure, blithely backhanded the puck out and it was happily received by Canucks defenceman Jason Garrison, whose wrist shot zinged by Marc Andre-Fleury, the marker just Garrison's third goal in 48 games.
What ails the Canucks, according to Tortorella before the game, was a forecheck that had gone feeble, and a recent inability to absorb physical play and retain possession of the puck. Then there's, in general, play away from the puck. David Booth, for one, has looked lost and on Tuesday wasn't even dressed, his season going backwards, again.
In better news, there's Zack Kassian, who looks smarter and stronger, game by game.
And there Kassian was in the third, nearly scoring on a great pass from Ryan Kesler in a Canucks push, an effort that ended with defenceman Chris Tanev scoring his fifth of the year and tying the game, the puck sneaking in through a considerable crowd of four – two of each team – obscuring Fleury's view, the one-time Team Canada goalie smashing his stick in frustration.
Moments thereafter, 10 minutes to go, big-man Tom Sestito went off for charging Kris Letang and it was the game on the line with the league's best power play – the Pens – and the league's best penalty kill, the Canucks. The four outplayed the five.
Then: joy, briefly, for the home side. Hansen dug it out from the Vancouver end and rushed ahead and flipped a long breakaway pass to Chris Higgins and he delivered. Seventeen second later – that fast – it was Kassian, knocking a waist-high pass out of midair and lofting a top-shelf backhand, Fleury beaten again, the comeback complete and the insurance deposited.
On Tuesday, as a whole, the Canucks fixed some of what was wrong back in California.
But, uh, not quite. How do you blow leads like this? asked one wag after the Pens had tied. Answer: slowly, then suddenly. And the league's best power play, against the league's best penalty, in this case not precisely an official power play, the six (Fleury pulled) outweigh the five.
First, Letang scored with about a minute left, on a shot from the point, and then 16 seconds – that fast – a puck came to Crosby by the side of the net, Hamhuis flailing, and Captain Canada banged it home, redeemed. Tied game, point on the road salvaged.
Come overtime, James Neal nearly ended it twice for Pittsburgh but Lack recovered form and pushed the twisting tilt to a shootout. And in the almost-silly skills contest, the only scorer was… Crosby. The best players deliver when the best players have to deliver. It is what Vancouver lacks, sorely.
Pittsburgh is the exactly the type of team Vancouver, especially at home, has to beat if the Canucks are going to be a real contender and not just first-round fodder in April as the postseason begins. Going down 2-0, and blowing a 4-2 lead, does not bode well in the long-term. The trials continue, unrelenting. The potent St. Louis Blues arrive on Friday, and then it's another sojourn through the vastness of L.A., on the road against the Kings on Monday and Wednesday in Anaheim. The fun never ends.
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