- Vancouver Canucks lose 5-2 to Chicago Blackhawks, after once more blowing a lead
- Canucks up 2-0 early in second period, then cede four goals on five shots in just eight minutes
- Team is now 2-3 without suspended coach John Tortorella, with one game left before he returns
At the dark end of January, memories of autumn faded, the prospects of spring distant, stock of the Vancouver Canucks is at a nadir.
The coach is suspended, for a display of threatened aggression that the National Hockey League called an embarrassment. The power play is a joke, the second worst in the league. Goals are rain in the Sahara. Even the ironman, team captain Henrik Sedin, who didn't miss a single hockey game for nearly an entire decade, is sidelined with an injury.
Try to suggest anything positive about this hockey team, that there is at least some potential, that the Canucks, if healthy and scoring at a more normal rate, could win a playoff round, and such talk is met with guffaws. You get laughed at. And perhaps fairly so.
It is not unlike a dire stock-market low, when hardly anyone believes there's any hope, any future. Back in the darkest days of the global financial crisis, when everything was in collapse, Vancouver mining titan Teck Resources looked like, to some, it was doomed. Obituaries were readied. Teck survived and, in fact, thereafter thrived.
But before Teck's renaissance, there were months when the century-old miner was on the verge of an end, nearly strangled by a jagged mountain of debt. And so it is with the Vancouver Canucks. There may be faint glimmers of better days, but they are fractions of light, at best. On Wednesday night, there were some early bursts of promise but it was a feint, and another soldout crowd at Rogers Arena was treated to the Canucks wasteland that is January of 2014.
Facing a slumping defending Stanley Cup champion, with Chicago playing for the second time in two nights, having lost to Calgary on Tuesday, the Canucks attacked at the open. John Tortorella, at home in Point Roberts or wherever the banished coach watches games he cannot attend, had to be smiling as Chris Higgins's driving forecheck sparked the team to an early goal, 16 seconds in, Higgins finishing what he started.
Even with the early burst, it was imperfect, as the Canucks often are. Some 12 minutes into the game, Vancouver had accumulated only one more shot on net after that initial goal. They held on, backstopped by the ever-reliable Roberto Luongo. Early in the second, big-man grinder Tom Sestito displayed his very occasional flash of scoring style, driving home his fifth goal of the season from the slot, shortly after stealing the puck from Chicago and feeding Brad Richardson in front, who nearly scored before Sestito did the job on a pass from Ryan Stanton.
Then… it all went wrong for the home team. The Stanley Cup champions asserted themselves – and the Canucks were in complete and ugly disarray. In less than eight minutes, Chicago scored four times – on five shots. Luongo could hardly be blamed. On the third goal, Patrick Sharp flung a puck into a far corner and Brent Seabrook flung it back out front. Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa waved at the puck, leaving some guy named Jonathan Toews unmarked. The Canadian Olympian scored, easily putting the puck home.
Twenty-four seconds later, Sharp fired a nice wrist shot from the slot, beating Luongo glove side, the Vancouver goaltender screened by two of his own teammates.
And so it is in these trying dark days of winter for the Canucks, now having slipped into the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference, passed by Minnesota, with Phoenix not far behind in ninth. Finishing eighth right now means playing Anaheim in the first round. Good luck with that, as the Canucks have lost five of six games to the Ducks this season and last, several of them blowouts, 7-3 and 9-1.
The scenario in which the Canucks actually win a playoff round? Yes, it does seem somewhat far-fetched. But the team could, somehow, coalesce, the likes of Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin and Alex Edler rediscovering their scoring punch. Climbing to seventh would mean facing either the St. Louis Blues or Chicago. Doesn't sound great but – excluding Wednesday night – the Canucks haven't fared terribly against either team.
First, the Blues, who have a bit of a better bead on winning the Central Division right now and securing second in the West. In the five times the two teams have played, last season and this season, games have been tight, with three going to overtime/shootout. The Canucks won the two games settled in regulation, and outscored the Blues 11-8 in regulation. The negative is the Blues largely controlled play, with shots on goal and shots missed (known as Fenwick to the stats nerds) when the games were close standing at 129 for St. Louis to 100 for Vancouver. That doesn't bode super well, but we are reaching for potential positives here in a dark time.
Against Chicago, well, there was what happened Wednesday. But there is also the previous five meetings going back a year. Three went to overtime/shootout, and the games settled in regulation were split one apiece. The Canucks outscored the Blackhawks 10-9 in regulation over the five games. But, again, Chicago drove play, with a cumulative Fenwick when the games were close of 110-94.
Right now, it is hard to see anything going right for Vancouver. Right now, few believe the team could challenge anyone in the first round, much less win four of seven. There are indeed a lot of ifs the Canucks need to go in their favour to start turning things around, to be a team of consideration come springtime. These are dark days in Vancouver. There is still a lot of hockey to play.