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Vancouver Canucks defenceman Jordie Benn checks Montreal Canadiens forward Nick Suzuki Saturday at Rogers Arena.
Vancouver Canucks’ Elias Pettersson battles for the puck with Montreal Canadiens’ Paul Byron as the Canucks host the Canadiens on Saturday at Rogers Arena.
Before the season started, if you had “late-January, three-game set vs. Ottawa” written down as a possible make-or-break series for the 2020-21 Vancouver Canucks, you win a prize.
Odds were pretty good coming into this year that the Jacob Markstrom/Tyler Toffoli-less Canucks were going to somewhat decline. Markstrom, after all, was responsible for something like 10 wins in 2019-20 all on his own.
He was the rock upon which the rest of their game was built.
Neither Braden Holtby nor Thatcher Demko were ever likely to be a repeat of Markstrom, but the Canucks need them to be closer to what they got from him than they are getting from the duo now.
They also just need to be better in general. Saturday’s effort was “better” in the sense that it wasn’t as bad as Thursday’s performance. And they did look like they were going to take the game once Nils Höglander scored halfway through the third. But then it all fell apart again.
In the end, they were out-shot-attempted at even strength 52-38 by the Habs. Montreal got more shots — and many of those were better shots. It’s hard to win when the other team has the puck more than you.
The Canadiens are the class of the division. There’s a reason I picked them to finish first. They were so good forcing turnovers and then transitioning the puck back through the neutral zone. There’s just no time to catch your breath.
The Canucks have three home games against the Senators this week before a big road trip back east.
They’re going to finally get some practice time in over the next few days, to be to work on the defensive issues they’re having. A chance to get on the same page.
Find the A game
Seriously, how many Canucks have truly played their “A” game this season, where they’ve played to the best of their abilities? Bo Horvat probably. Alex Edler, given what he is now as a player. Brandon Sutter maybe?
That’s about it. There are a lot of players, especially at the top end of the lineup, who haven’t been at their best.
So in that respect, you can see why the message after Saturday’s game was to preach some patience. These players know they have to be better. They’d better be so very, very fast.
What does the owner think right now?
It’s a pretty simple thing, you’d imagine. They’re not winning. They’re losing badly. Francesco Aquilini has seen his team three times in person this week and most of what he’s seen has been troubling.
There are structural problems that need fixing and the players just need a moment or two to work on that.
But still, this is the lineup Jim Benning assembled, even if it the budget — in real dollars, the cap crunch is another matter of course — wasn’t set by him. In the end, the buck stops there. There’s bound to be pressure on the GM.
How could there not be?
That Toffoli had such a good week against the Canucks — he was the best Habs forward on Saturday night in terms of controlling shots — won’t be sitting well with anyone. There were ways to keep him but management went in another direction. Keeping Jake Virtanen, for one, was a factor.
This is a big week. If the Canucks turn it around and dominate the Senators, the pressure surely eases off. If not … well you can figure that out.
On the whole, the defensive play from the Canucks through seven games has been terrible. Too many turnovers. Too many odd-man rushes.
They’re conceding goals in bunches and there’s just no scoring your way out of this kind of hole.
Let’s be clear: Other than that 94-95 team, the three other teams the current Canucks trail on that chart were B.A.D.
And it says a lot when in 2021 you’re averaging almost five goals *against* per game.
The tough math of the playoff chase
The math of a 56-game season is a bit tricky but if we some simple translation from an 82-game season, we do quickly get a picture of where things are are.
Say, conservatively, the first place team in the North were to be the equivalent of a 100-point team in a normal season. (The first place team is probably going to finish with more, but let’s just do it like so.)
In a 56-game season, that’s 68 points, give or take.
That’s a 34-win season.
If you’re conservative on the other end of the playoff scale and say you need the equivalent of a 93-point season to just qualify for the dance, over just 56 games, that’s roughly 63 points, or a 31.5 win season.
The Canucks have two wins in seven games. That means 29 wins in their remaining 49 games, give or take. Five games over .500.
That’s a lot to ask. It’s not impossible, but still a lot to ask. We’re already in the window where every game they don’t pick up points, their runway gets a little shorter.
And, of course, of those 49 remaining games, they still have six against the Habs, all nine against the Leafs and still eight against the Flames. So 23 games against the clear cream of the North Division.
Even if you say the Canucks win *half* those games — and given how they mostly struggled against Montreal and Calgary this past week, that currently seems hard to imagine — that still means they need 18 wins from the remaining 26 games against the Oilers, Jets and Senators.
That’s .692 hockey.
Entering Saturday’s play, Micah Blake McCurdy at HockeyViz.com projected the North Division playoff cutoff at 61 points and had the Canucks coming up about three wins short of the mark. (After Saturday’s loss, their point projection is going to sink further.)
( Over at The Athletic, Dom Luszczyszyn has the cutoff at 63 points and the Canucks finishing with 55 points. His projection including Saturday’s results.)
It’s already a tough road ahead.
The psychology of isolation
When you’re in a slump, for many the last thing you should do is go sit in your room. That’s the way you end up stewing in your own juices.
And often the way to shake yourself out of a slump is to smile, laugh, do anything else.
But in the NHL’s COVID world, players are supposed to be spending time away from each other when they’re not at the rink. (Even at the rink, they’re meant to be cautious.)
You can see how the current moment might be doubly tough on the Vancouver Canucks. Their confidence is fragile. They could probably use a few good hangs.
Last year, Markstrom was incredibly important to Elias Pettersson, for instance. He was almost like an older brother.
They don’t have either voice around to set the mood. And even if you put aside the leadership void, they’re not supposed to hang out with each other anyway.
What a pit to be in.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021