One month to build momentum, two minutes to lose it.
The Vancouver Canucks’ winning streak ended at two games Tuesday when they made mistakes with the puck just like they did during a season-opening seven-game losing streak. The New Jersey Devils beat them 5-2 at Rogers Arena.
The Devils, all speed and skill and transition, do that to teams. They look capable of becoming a National Hockey League powerhouse once again. But really, it was the Canucks who did it to themselves.
In a first period in which they outplayed the Devils, holding the league’s most prolific-shooting team to seven shots, they trailed 2-0. One goal came on an eight-second power play that followed Tanner Pearson’s foolish hooking penalty, and one on a huge rebound by goalie Thatcher Demko.
But instead of keeping what they did well in the first to earn better results in the second period, the Canucks reverted to lateral passes and forcing plays with the puck. Vasily Podkolzin turned it over on a power play, which led to Dawson Mercer’s 3-0 goal at 9:25 on a shorthanded two-on-one.
And just over two minutes later, either a bad read by Oliver Ekman-Larsson or bad coverage by a Canuck forward on a New Jersey stretch pass, led to another two-on-one and another easy goal for Yegor Sharangovich at 11:37.
On both outnumbered rushes, a veteran Canuck defenceman — first Ekman-Larsson, then Tyler Myers — failed to prevent the pass, giving Demko little chance of getting across his goalmouth to make a save.
This is Hockey 101: take away the pass so the goalie can treat the puck-carrier as the shooter.
“You’d like to think,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You want to be better at them. We go over them; we show them what they shouldn’t be doing (and) what good teams do and how they stop them. We’re working on it all the time and showing video on it all the time.
“Speed kills and they made us make mistakes with their speed and tenacity. That was pretty evident, I think. Like I keep saying, the one-on-one confrontations in the corners and that, they’re the ones coming out with the puck. Our second (player) wasn’t as quick as their second guy. So then they end up outnumbering your guys.”
On the night the Canucks got star defenceman Quinn Hughes back from injury, and brought newly-acquired defenceman Ethan Bear and depth forward Jack Studnicka into their lineup, they lost the traction they gained by finally winning games last week against the Seattle Kraken and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Demko is stuck on one win — and an .876 save percentage — for the season. The 32nd-ranked penalty kill still looks in crisis. And the power play, effective at times, is untimely and has now yielded three shorthanded goals in 10 games.
And then there are the turnovers, the east-west passes, that continue to undermine the systems play.
“We’re all trying to figure out what the problem is,” Hughes said. “I’m sure we’ll talk about it tomorrow. But as of right now, it’s just not a very good feeling.
“The third goal was a penalty kill and the fourth. . . I don’t know. I don’t think guys are pressing too hard. Everyone’s trying their best and it’s just not good enough right now. We’re not piecing it together as a five-man unit. I don’t have the answers. But. . . we’re going to have to figure it out fast.”
Myers said: “We can’t look at record right now and try to win it back with one game. It’s about going into each game focused on the same things that we need to be good at to be successful. And tonight, we just didn’t do it often enough. We gave up too many odd-man rushes. We made too many mistakes with the puck, not taking care of the puck well enough. We’ve got to clean it up. We can’t be making the same mistakes if we want to turn this around.”
Boudreau appears to have reached the point of exasperation on the east-west giveaways, the last of which was a forced pass by J.T. Miller that led to Jack Hughes’ empty-net goal with 1:02 remaining.
“Concerned?” Boudreau said. “We talk about it, we show it, we know the analytics on it. But somehow it still happens.”
Bo Horvat scored both Canucks goals from his bumper spot on the power play, which finished two-for-five but was minus-one on two chances when the game was still winnable.
“It’s tough to come back from 4-0,” Vancouver winger Conor Garland said. “That third one (shorthanded) kind of hurt us, and they tacked one on right after that. But, I mean, they’re a fast team, they can score in bunches and that’s what they did. They converted. They’re a good transition team. You give them a chance and they’ll execute on it, especially on two-on-ones.”
Ekman-Larsson said: “I just felt like we made it a little bit harder on ourselves than we should have. Turning pucks over at the blue line, and they came (at us) two against one I-don’t-know-how-many-times on our power play, and at five-on-five, too. It’s hard to play against those guys when you’re giving them their chances.”
Asked if he’s getting enough from his senior defence pairing of Myers and Ekman-Larsson, Boudreau said: “It’s a tough question. Obviously, we’re 2-6-2, so we’re not getting enough out of any anybody right now. We need our veteran guys and our better players to be our better players. . . every day, not just one good game here and one good game there. That goes not only for them, but it goes for the forwards as well, and the goaltending as well.”
The second half of the Canucks’ homestand includes a visit from the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday, then the Nashville Predators Saturday.