Canucks back to moral victories against Lightning

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Keeping the mighty Lightning to just 21 shots wasn’t enough for the Canucks on Thursday.

Just when it seemed like the Vancouver Canucks had left “moral victories” in the past, they embarked on a road trip against the NHL’s top teams.

On Tuesday, they may have lost 5-2 to the Florida Panthers, but they had 44 shots on goal against the team with the second-best record in the NHL.

On Thursday, the Canucks faced the only team ahead of the Panthers in the standings, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sure, they were down 4-2, but they limited the Lightning to just 21 shots on goal and only lost one goal in the final five minutes before an empty net sealed the game.

They’ve hooked up with two of the league’s best teams in the last two games; as moral wins go, that’s not bad for a Canucks team that scraped the bottom of the NHL standings just over a month ago.

The problem is, the Canucks need real wins. Although they had a fantastic run in their first nine games under Bruce Boudreau, they were in such a hole that they couldn’t afford to drop any points. There are five teams between the Canucks and a wild card and most of those teams have at least two games in hand.

“We have to win,” Matthew Highmore said bluntly. “We have to find a way to win victories on this road trip.”

The optimistic view of those last two games is that they were there competing against the Panthers and Lightning. The pessimistic view is that they lost by a combined score of 9-4, never led in either game for a single second, and the Panthers and Lightning only needed 26 and 21 shots to keep the Canucks away because they are elite teams and the Canucks are not at all.

Against teams like the Panthers and the Lightning, you can play very well, but any mistakes you make are often costly.

“The margin for error is really, really small,” Highmore said. “These are close games, they are not very open. You have to take your chances when you get them and you have to limit the opposition as much as you can.

Boudreau took a balanced approach to his view of the game, seeing both positives and negatives.

“I liked the competition. I thought we were much better than the other night for sure,” Boudreau said. “Anytime you can limit this team to 21 shots – I don’t know what the odds were, but I know they didn’t have many – I think you did a good job.

“At the same time, we have opportunities and we have four power plays and we get nothing. And it’s my fault that I fired the same guys all the time, but I think it has to improve.

If this road trip was meant to be a measuring stick, the Canucks have failed so far. Honestly they are higher up the stick than I expected. I respected the effort when I watched this game.

  • Boudreau’s point on the power play is important. It’s not just that the Canucks didn’t score on any of their four power plays against a Lightning penalty in the middle of the road, it’s that they only managed one shot on goal. They had 12 shot attempts but 7 were blocked and 4 missed the net. When the goaltender only has to make one save in eight minutes of the power play, something is wrong.
  • It was a 2-2 game at 5 on 5. The big little difference in the game was that the Lightning got a power play goal and the Canucks didn’t.
  • The least surprising thing happened: Steven Stamkos opened the scoring with a one-timer from the left faceoff circle. There were some deft passes, as the Lightning took advantage of the Canucks’ more aggressive approach to split the penalty box to create all sorts of space for Stamkos to blast the puck past Thatcher Demko.
  • The Canucks responded later in the first period with hard work from Tyler Motte to catch a pass in the Lightning area. He kept the puck and sent a shot towards the net that deflected Matthew Highmore, who sent the puck — yes, I’ll say it — upper, putting the puck just under the bar with a nice shot in front of a Juho Lammikko screen.
  • I’ve seen enough of Pettersson as a net presence on the power play. I get why they tried him, but it plays against just about every one of his strengths as a player, especially because the Canucks so rarely use him as a low point guard. If he’s going to play that role, the Canucks need to get him the puck under the goal line more often.
  • Honestly, it was a very strong game from Pettersson. He had seven shot attempts; the only problem is that only one of those shot attempts hit the net. He had good chances but missed the net, like on this partial breakaway in the second period. The good news, though, is that he gets those chances: he goes to the net, he plays in the dirty areas and he gets shot. For some reason, the finish just isn’t there right now.

  • “I can’t speak for him,” Boudreau said. “I just know that when I was playing when I was in a slump, it was usually because I was trying to be too cute: trying to pick the perfect spot, trying to make the perfect game, rather than picking up the puck, shoot it, hit the net, it doesn’t matter where you shoot from, you get six or seven shots on goal, usually at the end of the game you end up with a goal.
  • Pettersson was moved to left wing with Bo Horvat and Conor Garland and that line dominated puck possession. While on the ice together at 5-5, shot attempts were 17-4 for the Canucks, even though they were mostly up against the Lightning front line. They were the Canucks’ strongest line of the night, creating chance after chance, but they just couldn’t beat Andrei Vasilevskiy.
  • Boudreau disagrees with this assessment: “Lammikko’s line was easily our best line tonight. They had chances, they were on goal against – but they mostly play against Stamkos and Point and Kucherov.
  • The fourth line was pretty good — they scored both of the Canucks’ goals in that game — but they really had nothing to do against the Lightning’s top players. They were heavily outmatched against Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Brayden Point because of course they were. And their use against the best competition – with the third pairing of Brad Hunt and Tucker Poolman – led to a Benjamin Franklin goal.
  • A goal by Benjamin Franklin. You know, a key Lightning goal. You get it.
  • The Lightning were all over the Canucks leading to the 2-1 goal. Poolman couldn’t reach Killorn behind the net and he crossed for Cirelli, who swung the puck to his stick and backhanded Demko’s glove. No one took Cirelli’s stick, by which I mean no one tied his stick with his own stick, although I’m sure stealing the stick would have prevented the goal as well.
  • Even if the fourth line played well, Lammikko shouldn’t get more 5-on-5 minutes than Garland. Motte shouldn’t get more minutes at 5-5 than Horvat. Highmore shouldn’t get more 5-on-5 minutes than Pettersson. Garland, Horvat and Pettersson were leading 5-5 and should have had more ice time, but they were pretty low among even-strength Canucks forwards.
  • I want to be very clear here: the fourth line was great in this game. I really liked the way they played, especially when they were lined up against the back six, where the speed of Highmore and Motte made a big difference.
  • “We’re just trying to play every way we can, whether we’re killing penalties, blocking shots, scoring a goal, taking a hit to make a play, you know, whatever we can do to help win,” said Highmore. “It’s the most important thing right now and we’re just playing hard and we’re playing against each other and hopefully we can keep it that way.”
  • Late in the first, Brayden Point got angry with Conor Garland after what seemed like a relatively innocuous blow. It almost seemed like Point was using the Michael Jordan tactic of finding something to offend to inspire him. Or maybe Point was looking forward to a fight and was really excited to finally see someone on the ice smaller than him.

  • Apart from chance: did this shot from Kucherov hit the top of Demko’s water bottle? It looks a bit like it. Weird.

  • Did Corey Perry intentionally knock the Lightning net off its moorings as the Canucks threatened to rush? Of course he did. It’s Corey Perry. He is the master of the intentional accidental. Hanging his arm around the post is practically instinctive for him at this point.

  • The Lightning made it 3-1 on a clumsy play at the Lightning blue line. Hughes swept to try and keep a puck on the line, which would have been a good time for Tucker Poolman to step back carefully into the neutral zone as a safety valve or for Horvat to come off the bench to stay back. Instead, Poolman stopped and Horvat rushed into the offensive zone. When Hughes couldn’t control the bouncing puck, the Lightning got a 2-0 breakaway.
  • Hughes’ response was to throw his stick on the ice, which you’re definitely not allowed to do, but I understand. Not everyone has reach like Tyler Myers or extendable arms like Inspector Gadget. It didn’t work out either way: Boris Katchouk – a Tkachuk brother from the mirror universe – finished a round-trip passing game with a shrewd jab from the tip of his stick that fooled Demko.

  • Motte got the Canucks in short with a fantastic goal. Lammikko and Highmore battled under the goal line, with Highmore releasing the puck for Motte at the side of the net. With no room to take the puck up front, Motte instead went between his own legs and flipped the puck over Vasilevskiy. It was the best move between the legs since Nate Robinson.

  • It was, as Don Taylor would say, as close as it gets. Point put the puck in the empty net to end any hope of a comeback.
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