In the third period of their game against the Canadiens on Saturday night, the Vancouver Canucks had a chance to change the story of their early season woes with an emphatic comeback victory. About those woes, briefly: Vancouver had lost five of six after an opening night victory over the Oilers, lost 7-3 to the Canadiens on Thursday, and had surrendered the first two goals of this game to a pair of Montreal forwards. But early in the third, the Canucks suddenly, finally, looked dangerous again. Last year’s top scorer Elias Pettersson found the net for the first time all year with a deflection, and then just a few minutes later the rookie Nils Hoglander tied up the score with a nifty backhand through a crowd.
And that was as good as it would get for Vancouver, thanks to a couple of huge mistakes. First, with half the third period still left to play, the promising young defenseman Quinn Hughes made an errant pass to an unsuspecting Bo Horvat, despite very little pressure in his own zone; the Habs pounced for a simple two-on-one go-ahead goal.
Not long after, Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin buried any remaining hope by transforming an offensive zone turnover into a breakaway, where he five-holed Braden Holtby for a 4-2 lead in an eventual 5-2 win.
This is a disappointing turn of events for a team that has been the NHL’s most exciting up-and-comer in recent years. While the Canucks have put together an enviable gang of young attackers including (among others) Horvat, Brock Boeser, Pettersson, J.T. Miller, and the offensively-minded Hughes, the huge plunge that their defense has taken since 2020 is what’s dooming them to these impossible deficits. The Canucks have allowed at least three goals in every game they’ve played so far this year, and they’ve allowed five goals in all but two contests. In all, that’s 33 goals allowed so far this year, or an astonishing twelve more than the next worst team in that category.
It’s easy to point the finger at the goaltending here, and frankly, you should do so. As last year’s No. 1 Jacob Markstrom has dominated in his first three games over in Calgary, getting scored on less than twice per game, his replacements in Vancouver have so far failed to live up to past glories. Thatcher Demko, the younger of the tandem, was a surprise playoff hero who singleglovedly almost stole a second round series from Vegas, but since that incredible showing he’s reverted back to his below-average norm. Newcomer Braden Holtby has looked nothing like the champion he once was in Washington, and he has followed a career-worst season in 2020 with even poorer play in four starts this year.
The Canucks are helping out their goalies on the other end by shoveling more pucks into the net than anyone but the Habs and Flyers, but they’re still not doing Holtby and Demko any favors with their sloppy overall play. The Canucks’ tendency to give the puck away in the defensive zone is worse than every NHL team besides the woeful Senators and Red Wings. As fans of Ottawa and Detroit could grimly inform you, that is not a recipe for playoff hockey. It was this exact issue that prevented Vancouver from even keeping the game close on Saturday.
And now for the caveat: Anything can happen in any given seven-game stretch of hockey, and it’s more than a bit unfair to pass such harsh judgement on such a small sample size. But! We’re already one-eighth of the way through this awkward little NHL season, and even though the Canucks will surely get a game soon enough in which they allow only two or one or theoretically even zero goals, it’s plain to see that this is a team playing very poorly in its own third, and not just a group that’s been unlucky at the wrong times.
I hope it’s not too soon to say that this upcoming week, with its three games against the Senators, stands out as a big potential inflection point for these Canucks. For any team trying to emerge from the tough Canadian division and make the postseason, these are the gimme games, and they’re a huge opportunity for Travis Green’s boys to right the ship. Yes, it’s early, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t getting late. If the Canucks bomb this series, all hope for this year might already be lost.