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Canucks missing energy, sharpness after return from long layoff

It wasn’t a Kodak moment for the Vancouver Canucks.

Hot in record only — having not played since Jan. 1 while several players were in COVID protocol — the Canucks lost in regulation for the first time since Bruce Boudreau became coach five weeks ago, run over 5-2 by a powerful Panthers team that is a legitimate Stanley Cup challenger.

The loss provided sobering clarity about what the Canucks — 8-0-1 before their second of two lengthy layoffs — face as they attempt a five-game-in-eight-days road trip against the National Hockey League’s elite.

When he was hired last month as president to replace fired general manager Jim Benning, Jim Rutherford said this January trip through the southeast would be revealing for the Canucks. But after nine days between games, and after Vancouver had played just three times in 25 nights, what was revealed is the team is no longer sharp.

Whatever positive energy and excitement it carried out of the layoff was obliterated when the Panthers scored twice in 26 seconds halfway through the second period to blow open what had been a one-goal game.

Jamie Dodd and Thomas Drance dive deep on the issues that matter for any die-hard Canucks fan, bringing comprehensive coverage and exclusive interviews.

Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko wasn’t the same after the layoff. Vancouver special teams weren’t the same. The passing, especially out of their own zone and through the middle of the ice, wasn’t the same. And the result, although unfairly harsh to the Canucks based on five-on-five play, certainly was not the same.

So this is what losing feels like under Boudreau.

“It’s not all bad when you lose,” Boudreau said after his first pointless night in charge of the Canucks. “But there’s a lot of things that we can take out that we didn’t do well, and that’s something that hopefully we can correct. It’s never fun when you lose. You can get all the good things going when you’re winning. This was bringing us down to earth a little bit, and hopefully we will just get ourselves back together and start going in a positive direction starting tomorrow.

“When we get the puck behind their defencemen and we’re forechecking, we’re very good. We create things, we make things happen. When we move pucks, we’re really good. But I think the biggest problem we had, quite frankly, was making bad decisions in the neutral zone and not putting pucks on tape. When we weren’t mismanaging the puck, we were… doing fairly well.

“We made a tonne of mistakes today that are correctable mistakes. And hopefully they’ll understand that they’re correctable mistakes — mistakes that we hadn’t made.”

The Canucks actually outshot the Panthers — who are an astonishing 19-3-0 at home this season — 44-26 and trailed just 2-1 halfway through the game.

But after Tyler Motte took an interference penalty at 7:47 of the middle period, Jonathan Huberdeau had an open look from the slot and wristed a shot in off teammate Sam Reinhart at 8:46. On the next shift, Maxim Mamin beat the Canucks’ Nils Hoglander off the sideboards and scored with a sharp-angle backhand over Demko’s shoulder at 9:12 and that was essentially the game.

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Boudreau called a timeout, and the Canucks played hard and dominated the third period territorially. But they were never coming back from three goals down on the road in the second half of a game against the team that tops the NHL standings.

Spoiler alert: the team tied on points with the Panthers — the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning — are next up for the Canucks on Thursday. Then Vancouver visits the No. 3 Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday.

“We were in it,” Jason Dickinson — who scored for the Canucks in the first period — lamented. “We started the second period really well. And then we give up one on the PK and that one hurts. When they score, you’ve got to come back with a good shift and, sure enough, they came back with a better one and scored again. That’s a backbreaker.”

The Canucks practise on Wednesday before facing the Lightning. After last month’s layoff, a 12-day Christmas break that was extended by postponements throughout the league, the Canucks were excellent in their first game back in Anaheim on Dec. 29 but awful the next night in Los Angeles.

“We should be better on Thursday, just in general,” Dickinson said. “We can’t use the 10 days (off) as a crutch to lean on. There’s no excuses.”

Boudreau said he considered replacing Demko with backup Jaroslav Halak for the third period, but the starter wanted to stay in. And honestly, Demko probably needed the game work.

Boudreau was wary of letting any negativity back in Tuesday after the Canucks built in December the franchise’s longest points streak in a decade.

That is why, he explained, he used his timeout after the half-minute meltdown in the second period.

“I’d seen it in the past — you get two goals scored against you and you just sort of quit and say, ‘Oh man, here we go again,’” Boudreau said. “And I didn’t want that attitude seeping into the bench or the locker room. After that… we were pretty positive on the bench. We were pulling for each other. I mean, hell, we’ve got a guy (Tanner Pearson) fighting in a three-goal deficit, trying do his job with a minute to go. That’s the never-quit that you want to see. And if you have that, then eventually you won’t get back-to-back goals scored on you in a hurry.

“We said (before the third period)… that we have to come out of this game with something positive. We have to keep going in. I mean, adversity, reveals character.”

In that way, this could be a really revealing road trip.

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Written by Sportsnet

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