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Hockey Canucks haunted by ghost of last season as strong start begins to fade

New York Rangers right winger Martin St. Louis (26) fails to score on a penalty shot on Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller (30) during the second period of NHL action in Vancouver, B.C. Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

On Friday at lunchtime, before the Vancouver Canucks were embarrassed by the New York Rangers on Saturday night, the Canucks spoke in an almost foreboding tone, a sense that something big pivoted on the game.

The Canucks had started the season strong, and even stood first place in the NHL for a day in late November, but several losses piled up at the end of a long road trip and, suddenly, a frisson of worry cracked through the team. "No need to panic … yet," read a local headline.

Coming home, the Canucks themselves did not hide what their 30th game of the season meant, after practising late Friday morning. It felt a little early in the season for such fraught talk but the Canucks offered it up, one after another, like a mantra.

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"We know how big of a game it is," said rookie coach Willie Desjardins. "A lot of emphasis on this game," said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. "Key stretch for us this season," said Daniel Sedin of these four games at home before Christmas.

So one might have expected a fiery Canucks at Rogers Arena on Saturday night and instead it was the reincarnated ghost of the Canucks circa last winter, when the team imploded in spectacular fashion. New York pounded at Vancouver in pulsing attacks, four-on-one, three-on-one, two-on-one, and piled in three early, easy goals. The second goal was scored as the scorers of the first goal were recited by the arena announcer.

It was like watching a video game. And the Canucks, in response, offered nothing. They limped out of the first period and limped through the second, managing only two shots on the Rangers net in the first 14 minutes of the middle frame. It was as though the team had given up on this one or, worse, could not conjure any gusto. Final score: 5-1 – which flattered Vancouver, since New York eased up in the final period.

Afterwards, the Canucks doubled down on the fraught talk of Friday. What had been an important game, a key stretch, became far more significant. Vancouver, in the first quarter of the season, had one of its best starts in the four-decade-plus history of the franchise. Now, everything that went wrong last winter feels like it could re-emerge to rip this team apart.

Goalie Ryan Miller talked about the hole the team has dug for itself, and wondered whether the team can climb out of it, or dig itself deeper. Lucky for Vancouver, the next three games are against teams below the Canucks in the standings. Vancouver, even with the hot start, stands in a precarious spot, fifth in the West, with only a small cushion over ninth.

Questions. Where are the Sedins? The twins have 52 points together this year and 22 of those – more than 40 per cent – have come against the very worst teams in the league. The Sedins have not delivered when it counts.

What of Miller? He was hardly to blame Saturday night – but his save percentage does not look like it's worth $6-million. He looks, often, 34 years old. During the hot start, Miller delivered when it counted, big saves late in games as his team outscored opponents. Wins piled up until they evaporated.

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Miller on Friday talked about the need for more practices. The Canucks have four in the next week. So the team has it in its hands to wrest itself out of the early throes of a tailspin.

"For us to make progress we have to practise," said Miller on Friday. "You start to notice how every team starts to [improve] about a quarter-way through the season, halfway through the season, and on and on. The teams you thought at the start of the season didn't look so good, they start figuring out how to play as a group."

There had been talk of fatigue at the end of the long two-week road trip – odd to blame about being tired when the season isn't two months old – and Desjardins said his team was still sluggish in practice on Friday. He likened it to skating in sand. A good description of the pinching Canucks chasing after the Rangers on the many odd-man rushes on Saturday night.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin of the first period. "That was embarrassing."

Before the season began, it was hard to get a precise bead on the Canucks. They surely were set to improve on the worst of last winter – but the team didn't seem poised for anything special. The team internally saw the top six in the Western Conference as fairly set – Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Chicago, St. Louis and Minnesota. The Canucks brass pictured the team in a scrap for seventh or eighth. Making the playoffs was the much-repeated measure of success.

The glow of the unlikely start is gone. What can be revived will unfurl this next week.

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