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Trapped in an unchecked cycle, Canucks’ free fall accelerates with each new loss

Needing to show something, the Vancouver Canucks showed nothing on Wednesday. Actually, maybe what they showed is they are who they appear to be.

Losers in six of their previous seven games, starting another road trip, with a debacle in Denver still fresh from the start of their last road trip, the Canucks failed utterly to compete in the first period of what turned into another dispiriting loss – 4-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The main difference from their 7-1 embarrassment against the Colorado Avalanche 13 nights earlier is that Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko was sensational and the Penguins didn’t finish like the Avalanche did. Until the second period.

Outshot 13-4 in the first 12 minutes, the Canucks eventually made too many mistakes for Demko to save them as the Penguins scored three goals in the second period to cruise to an easy victory against a Vancouver team that has been outscored 23-7 over four straight road losses.

The Canucks did not get a puck past Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry until Bo Horvat’s sensational solo effort with 5:08 remaining, ending Vancouver’s goal-less streak at 147 minutes and 58 seconds – just under two-and-a-half hours.

The loss dropped the Canucks to 6-12-2 at the quarter-mark of their National Hockey League season. Yes, they have been that bad.

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Where heart thou

For his first three seasons in charge, coach Travis Green over-delivered with the roster he had. The Canucks definitely weren’t great but were usually grating, relentless in their effort and rarely an easy out. Now with their most talented lineup in several years, the Canucks have failed to come close to expectations and, on nights like Wednesday, are a breeze to play against due to their carelessness with the puck and unwillingness or inability to win puck battles.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily compete level,” Green told reporters after the loss. “I think we have some players that probably aren’t playing as good as they can. They’re trying, they’re competing. They’re just not getting it done.

“We need to find probably a little more play out of some guys. We’ve got to play a direct game. There’s a lot that goes into winning. We’ve got to put it together for 60 minutes.”

Horvat’s goal was the first in seven games from any of him, Elias Pettersson or Brock Boeser. They are supposed to be three of the team’s top four forwards.

Young and failing hands

In his crisis-management press conference last week, Canucks general manager Jim Benning acknowledged that the team had been handed over to its “younger group of players” after years of surrounding them with veteran leaders.

Gone from leadership in the last two years alone are Chris Tanev, Jacob Markstrom, Troy Stecher, Alex Edler and Jay Beagle, and Brandon Sutter has been absent all of this season with long-haul COVID symptoms.

Young players like Demko and defenceman Quinn Hughes have elevated their games this season, but others like Pettersson and Boeser have faded amid the losing streak. Even Horvat, captain reliable, is floundering as he tries to do more.

Pettersson’s recorded ice time on Wednesday of 12:48 was his lowest in any non-injury-related game since he made his debut for the Canucks on Oct. 3, 2018.

As a group, they are failing the leadership test.

“I think we have some young players that maybe aren’t playing their best game, (and) there’s a lot that’s been put on them to lead the team in that area,” Green explained. “Has there been too much put on them? I don’t think so. They want the pressure, they’ve been good players in the past. That’s all part of the process of maturing as a player.”

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Gaining momentum

Just as winning and playing well generates inertia that can carry teams through difficult patches, so too can losing and underperforming destroy a team’s immune system, making it frail and even more likely to lose. Unchecked, that cycle only gets worse. That’s how the Canucks look right now. Their free fall is accelerating with each loss, making it harder to stop.

Too slow to compete at the start of Wednesday’s game and badly outshot and out-chanced early, the Canucks were somehow still tied 0-0 going into the second period. The game was still there for them. They just needed to start playing, start competing, find some energy from Demko’s miracle work and put some pressure on the Penguins.

Instead, Vancouver’s league-worst penalty killers got running around and surrendered a power-play one-timer to Bryan Rust at 49 seconds.

At 7:29, Evan Rodrigues made it 2-0, taking the advantage of space given him by defenceman Tyler Myers to pick a corner on Demko after a blind, cross-ice pass to nobody from Hughes, whose turnover followed one up ice from Pettersson. Zach Ashton-Reese made it 3-0 on a three-on-one at 15:20 after Canucks Tucker Poolman and Nils Hoglander combined on another turnover at the Pittsburgh blue line.

“I don’t know if we’re pressing too hard,” Horvat said. “We’re trying to make something out of nothing right now …where we’re not playing the way we should be playing in order to win. I don’t know if we’re pressing for offence or what, I don’t really know the answer. But it seems to be that way — we turn pucks over and it ends up in the back of the net.”

Asked how players could be so unprepared to start a road trip after enduring the beatdown from the Avalanche just a couple of weeks ago, Horvat said: “I wish I had answers for you guys. I mean, again, it comes from our room and comes from us being ready to play. It comes from knowing what we’re going to be up against. We knew they’re going to be a fast team. We knew they’re going to come hard. And again, we should have been ready for that.”

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Noise gets louder

A performance like Wednesday’s further stokes fan unrest on the West Coast. Losing this way is not sustainable for anyone.

“You have a lot of noise and a lot of talk,” Green said, turning his back on a reporter who asked about the noise in the market. “The media makes a lot of noise and a lot of talk. It’s not the same in the locker room. Guys are worried about trying to get their game going, find their game, come out and play their best game. You can try to get to a point that they’re not ready to play. I thought we looked a little slow tonight coming out of the gate.”

Winger J.T. Miller said: “I’m worried about our team playing well, getting better, winning hockey games. That’s the only thing I’m focused on. I could care less what anybody else says. I don’t really care what you guys say either — no offence. I’m worried about one thing and that’s winning games.”

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