Drance: Why the Canucks’ four-game losing streak is a test, not a crisis

SEATTLE — The Vancouver Canucks put in a miserable performance in Seattle on Thursday night and have now lost four consecutive games in regulation.

They lost to a Seattle Kraken side that, to its credit, has come alive over the past few months. Left for dead in late November, Seattle has revived its playoff chances over the past 10 weeks by clamping down and playing elite team defence. On Thursday night the Kraken were more desperate than the Canucks, outworked Vancouver and patiently churned the game in their favour. By about the 15-minute mark of the first period, the Kraken began to step on the Canucks’ collective neck.

They wouldn’t lead outright until late in the second period, but from that point on, the Kraken felt inevitable.

The Canucks sputtered on Thursday, losing 5-2. They played like a tired team.

Vancouver couldn’t generate zone time with any regularity. The bottom six was a wasteland. The Canucks struggled mightily to test Philipp Grubauer with anything dangerous on the power play or at even strength.

The Canucks were permissive, again, when shorthanded. They lost the game decisively, even though they managed a couple goals off wildly favourable bounces.

If it wasn’t the worst performance this season, it was close. The debacle in Philadelphia in the third game of the year was the only other outing in which this team seemed as feckless as they were at Climate Pledge Arena.

Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet was furious postgame. He called his team’s performance a “comedy of errors,” agreed with a reporter who suggested it looked like his star players didn’t want the puck on the power play and insisted at length that the club’s performance was on him, given that the group fell far short of matching the competitiveness shown by Kraken players.

“Too many no-shows,” was his damning summary of his side’s performance.

This Canucks team hasn’t lost games very often, and even when they have, they haven’t often lost like this. Even on this current losing streak, the Canucks at least put in solid performances and managed to hang with high-end Central Division opponents in the Colorado Avalanche and the Winnipeg Jets. The Minnesota Wild game got away from them dramatically and ended with a crooked, embarrassing scoreline, but the Canucks weren’t outplayed in that game at even strength.

No, what we saw on Thursday was something different. Something altogether flimsier than the losses this team has stacked up over the past week.

It isn’t necessary to be overly dramatic about a single result in the 59th game of what’s been a dream season. The Canucks are well positioned for the stretch run, a shoo-in for a playoff berth, and still hold the best point percentage in the Western Conference. Failing to register a single point this week doesn’t change that.

And yet as I considered the tired, uninspired performance we witnessed Thursday night, I couldn’t help but think about Jim Rutherford’s preseason commentary handicapping his club’s playoff odds.

“To be very to the point, with the changes that we’d made, we have a playoff team if everything goes right,” Rutherford said, in his typical matter-of-fact style, during a news conference that marked the official opening of the 2023-24 season.

“We want to get to a point where we have enough in our lineup that you can have a few things go wrong…,” he then added. “And overcome that.”

To this point, everything has gone right.

The club’s ascendance this season has been powered by a historic run of finishing efficiency and consistent, elite goaltending. The Canucks are getting career seasons out of their star players, but also have a variety of depth players — including Sam Lafferty, Nils Höglander, Dakota Joshua, Teddy Blueger and Pius Suter — racking up points at rates they’ve never previously managed.

The Canucks have also been mostly healthy, especially at the top end of their lineup. They’ve been able to count on a variety of blue liners — such as Tyler Myers and Noah Juulsen — to perform at exceptional levels of two-way reliability, above the level we’ve been accustomed to in their Canucks careers.

Slowly and subtly over the past few weeks, however, a few things have stopped going right. Around the edges, some of the performances that have powered Vancouver this season have softened. Some, but not all, of their good fortune has begun to turn.

Backup netminder Casey DeSmith, for example, a stalwart for the club in the first few months of the year, has struggled since the New Year. In five starts in 2024, DeSmith has amassed a 1-1-3 record while posting a pedestrian .844 save percentage. He’s stopped significantly fewer shots than expected during that span.

Injury troubles, from which the club was largely immune for the first few months of the season (aside from a medium-term Carson Soucy absence in November) have also begun to crop up. Soucy was re-injured in late January, just as the club’s defensive game seemed headed for another level. Joshua is out of the lineup on a week-to-week basis with a hand injury, which has disrupted what was Vancouver’s only consistent play-driving line at five-on-five. And Ilya Mikheyev’s form has atrophied significantly, his skating power still noticeably weaker as he approaches the 12-month mark since undergoing surgery to repair his torn ACL.

Those circumstances have left Vancouver’s rush defence more vulnerable than it’s been at any time this season. Key depth forwards in Höglander and Suter have been forced into the top-six for spurts over the past few weeks, diminishing the effectiveness of Vancouver’s forward group. There’s a cost to all of this. On Thursday night in Seattle, for example, with their third and fourth forward lines on the ice at five-on-five, the Canucks didn’t register a single shot on goal.

Vancouver’s bottom-six scoring depth, a flat out superpower over the past few months, has suddenly become a liability.

Finally, there’s the matter of the team’s special teams struggles to consider.

Officially, the Kraken power play managed a goal on three opportunities on Thursday night. Truthfully, they scored two with the man advantage, given that Seattle got a key go-ahead goal in the second period immediately following the expiration of an Elias Lindholm high-sticking penalty, and before the penalized Canucks skater could rejoin the play.

Vancouver’s penalty kill has been good enough for much of the year, but in 10 games since the All-Star break, Vancouver’s shorthanded play has become porous. Though the numbers are skewed by the Wild’s outburst earlier this week, the fact remains that Vancouver has permitted 10 power-play goals against across the last 10 games.

Compounding the issue, Vancouver’s power play isn’t responding to help offset the club’s suddenly-leaky-again penalty killing. With the man advantage, the Canucks look a bit lost at the moment. On Thursday night, they trotted out a different first unit on nearly every power-play opportunity. None of them threatened.

Vancouver’s power play was a trump card back in October and November. Now the club has scored once on the power play in the past 28 opportunities. Vancouver has only scored three power-play goals in 10 games — while permitting three shorthanded goals against, to offset even that meagre contribution — since the All-Star break.

If injuries, depth issues and special teams struggles have nibbled away at Vancouver’s overall form, then the condensed nature of the schedule has delivered the final body blow. This team has played 10 games in the past 17 days, including eight on the road. It’s been a brutal stretch. Especially when you consider that while most teams got an extended break during the All-Star weekend, the Canucks sent a quarter of their roster to be run around to various media and sponsorship obligations in Toronto.

Inescapably, on Thursday, and this isn’t an excuse so much as a reality, the Canucks looked and performed like an exhausted group.

Beneath the surface of an unfavourable run of results, however, there are still signs of the robust team we’ve seen for most of this year.

Vancouver’s improved five-on-five form has held. The club has only been outscored by one goal at five-on-five on this current four-game losing streak, despite the netminders pitching an .859 save percentage.

Individually, rookie forward Arshdeep Bains has provided a spark and a possible, partial answer to the club’s bottom-six issues. J.T. Miller has played some of his best hockey of the season. And the overall defensive commitment and ability to control games with the top pair on the ice at even strength will likely give the Canucks some margin for error down the stretch.

Vancouver is about to enter a less condensed segment of the schedule, loaded with home games and mostly free of back-to-backs between now and the end of the year. The difficulty of their opponents is high — the Canucks will battle the toughest schedule of any Western Conference team over the balance of the campaign — but the club will have a regular rest advantage as it seeks to hold off the Edmonton Oilers atop the Pacific Division.

In the present, frustration is mounting for and around this group, especially given the enhanced expectations this Canucks team has earned. Fans are getting nervous, and Tocchet was clearly frustrated with the performance on Thursday.

Now a significant challenge awaits the Canucks on the immediate horizon: a 4 p.m. home game Saturday afternoon against a Boston Bruins team that schooled them earlier this month. It’s a game the Canucks could sorely use, as they hope to pull out of this post-All-Star break skid before they meaningfully leave the door open for the Oilers in the Pacific Division race.

This is the test of the stretch run. The Canucks have shown that they’re a playoff team and then some, if everything goes their way. Now, with some challenges hitting the hockey club at the margins, the big question Rutherford posed at the outset of this season remains.

Does this team have enough in their lineup that they can have a few things go wrong, but still overcome the challenges?

With 23 games remaining before the Stanley Cup playoffs, only the Canucks players can answer that question.

(Photo: Jeff Halstead / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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