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Why Canucks’ slow start to season shouldn’t cause panic yet

VANCOUVER – There is always a whiff of panic in the statement “this is no time to panic,” or else what need would there be for such a declaration?

It’s like a lifeguard at the beach instructing us: “Calmly get out of the water.” OK, but why is she shouting through a bullhorn? And is that a dorsal fin over there?

Four games into their National Hockey League season, the message from the Vancouver Canucks is essentially that they need to play better but this is no time to panic, which naturally causes us to stand up to better survey the landscape and see for ourselves if we should run like hell.

To be fair to the Canucks, the West Coast has more or less embraced this fatalistic wariness for the last 50 years. Don’t tell us when to panic; we’ve had practice.

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The Montreal Canadiens, who visit Vancouver for three games in four nights starting Wednesday, haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993 but still lead the Canucks 24-0 in championships.

The old-and-improved Canadiens just dusted the Edmonton Oilers 8-2 over two games and look at least as good as the Calgary Flames, who swept the Canucks over the same span by the same aggregate. (The Canucks and Oilers split two games before getting trampled by others).

Panic? No, not quite yet.

But remember, the key to survival is not to be the last one out of the water.

With the Canucks right now, it’s not one thing, but nearly everything.

The team’s five-on-five play has been average during the 1-3 start to the condensed season, but was shockingly inconsistent during Monday’s 5-2 loss in Calgary, where the Canucks followed their best period so far (outshooting the Flames 16-4 in the first) with their worst (getting outshot 20-3 in the second).

Goalies Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko have been alright, saving what they are expected to save based on shot quality, but not more.

Things get worse from there.

• Although left winger J.T. Miller missed the first three games due to COVID-19 protocols, the first line with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser has had two superior periods and is getting regularly outplayed.

• Pettersson, whose most astonishing achievement so far was getting fined by the NHL for Monday’s slash to the clavicle of Sean Monahan – he would have been suspended had the lumber landed a few inches higher – admits he is frustrated and looks as troubled as he’s been since the 22-year-old burst upon the league two seasons ago.

• The six-man defence has three new players since last season and marquee acquisition Nate Schmidt concedes the transition has been difficult, contributing to a lack of cohesion at times in the Canucks’ zone.

• Vancouver has taken more penalties than anyone.

• And under-pinning everything is atrocious special-teams play that has both the 0-for-15 power play and 14-for-21 penalty killing ranked at or near the bottom of the league. Even with Tyler Myers’ largely irrelevant shorthanded bank-in on Monday, Canucks special teams are in a six-goal deficit through four games. Only the St. Louis Blues are worse.

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After a breakthrough season in 2019-20, the Canucks’ impressively long playoff run last summer and the ongoing evolution of their elite young stars, Vancouver’s false-start to this season has been fairly startling even with the free-agent loss last October of outstanding goalie Jacob Markstrom.

The last time Canucks suffered this kind of whiplash was at the start of the playoffs when, so full of promise and inexperience, Vancouver opened with a doubt-inducing 3-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild.

Coach Travis Green steadied his young team then, and some of the messaging to players on Tuesday was similar to that day-after in August.

“A little bit,” Green said on a video call with reporters. “I talked about that today. Obviously, it’s different; that was playoff hockey and your feelings are a little bit different. But just the way we played yesterday and the loss, I think it’s similar a little bit. Our guys, they were pretty upset last night with how they played, which they should be.”

Asked about some of the conditions surrounding the Canucks’ poor start, Green said: “It’s easy to dissect it that way and come up with excuses. I’m not going to make excuses. Yeah, we haven’t had exhibition games. Yeah, we’ve got some new players. You can make excuses or you can look for answers. Everyone is on the same playing field. We just haven’t played well enough. That’s the bottom line.

“We can’t have half your team playing the way you should, and half your team not. We need everyone to play better. Certain players need to raise their game.”

Green wasn’t asked to name names and didn’t have to.

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It starts with his top forwards and penalty-killers. Pettersson did not go three games without a point all of last season and the power play, which finished fourth in the NHL at 24.2 per cent, went four games without scoring only once.

With last change, Green said he won’t hide Pettersson from the Canadiens.

“Is he frustrated a little bit?” Green said. “Sure. It shows that he cares, shows that he wants to do more. He wants to play better. Would he like to probably change how he handled some of the frustration and not taken penalties? Sure. But he’s still a young player in the league. He’s learning.

“Every year is a new year. Every year it’s equally hard to win as the year before. I don’t think we need to overplay him getting frustrated. He’s still learning and he’ll be better as he goes here. I’m fully confident in that.”

The Canucks lost four games in a row only once last season. It was during the late-winter playoff race – after Vancouver had built just enough of a cushion to survive its slump. The urgency to start well in a 56-game season changes things.

Week 2 suddenly feels critical to the Canucks.

“Even an 82-game season, you don’t want to start this way, let alone a 56,” veteran winger Tanner Pearson said. “It’s kind of… I don’t want to say more pressure than usual, but you’ve really got to think about turning things around quicker [and not] dipping your toes in the water and letting things play out. We’ve got to turn the boat around.”

And keep one eye on shore. Just in case.

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