VANCOUVER — On a day when coach Travis Green’s choice of starter sparked debate about the identity of the Vancouver Canucks’ No. 1 goaltender, there was no lack of clarity from the Winnipeg Jets. They played their backup, who was merely perfect.
It turns out Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko, a slightly surprising choice to start because teammate Braden Holtby’s 5-1 win Wednesday in Calgary was his best performance of the season, was not the issue. Demko needed to be perfect, too, for Vancouver to get a point. Instead he was beaten once, albeit badly, on a first-period breakaway by Mark Scheifele.
The Jets eventually added an empty-netter from Mason Appleton and extinguished the Canucks’ modest 2-0-1 points streak.
Any intra-division loss feels significant when you’re already facing a deficit in the standings. Instead of pulling even with the Jets on points, the Canucks fell four adrift and have played four more games than Winnipeg. So, the teams aren’t close, even if the Canucks were on Friday.
“It felt like we had the puck a lot, but we didn’t put enough pressure to the net with shots and traffic,” Green told reporters after the game. “We missed (the net) a few times from the point when we had traffic. But there’s also another team that has a say in what’s going on. . . and sometimes you miss the net because they’re in the shot lane and they’re willing to block a shot.
“Anytime there’s a game that’s 2-0 with an empty-net goal, it’s a hard-fought game. And you can sit and pick apart why you didn’t score all day long, but the bottom line is we didn’t get a goal.”
The Canucks’ best chances came in the second period when Adam Gaudette, who scored on opening night but has just one goal in 15 games since then, missed the target from six feet in front of Brossoit after a terrific setup by Brandon Sutter.
A few minutes later, Brock Boeser stickhandled into a glorious shooting position before also sliding the puck harmlessly wide of the net.
Late in the period, defenceman Nate Schmidt skated on to a loose puck for a breakaway and bounced a shot off Brossoit’s arm before the goalie reached back in desperation to gather the puck before it wobbled across the goal-line.
Scheifele buried a similar chance at 7:25 of the first period, fooling Demko on a warp-speed deke after Canucks defenceman Alex Edler allowed J.T. Miller’s back-pass to hop over his stick at the Jets’ blue line, then made the situation worse by stumbling as he tried to accelerate as Scheifele went by in a blur.
“It felt like a really tight game,” Demko said after making 30 saves. “Right from the puck drop, it was the type of game you knew if there was a mistake, it would probably have a big impact on the end result. Kind of a playoff-style game. But I thought our guys rose to the challenge.
“I thought we played a pretty good game: limited their chances, created some good ones, too. It’s kind of out of your control at the end of the day.”
After starting the season 6-11-0, the Canucks will probably need to string together points streaks a lot longer than three games to get back in the playoff race. In most of their losses, the score hasn’t been close, and Vancouver has salvaged only one “loser point” this season – Monday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Flames.
Friday was another game in which the Canucks could have taken at least a point, but got none. They shouldn’t lack for motivation when the teams play again here Sunday.
In the final minute, six-foot-four Winnipeg defenceman Derek Forbort went after five-foot-nine Vancouver rookie Nils Hoglander. Despite Forbort throwing a couple of gloved punches at the Canuck while already on a delayed call for holding, referees Brad Meier and Michael Markovic somehow adjudicated the scuffle with off-setting minors to each team, which deprived Vancouver of a power play with 42 seconds remaining.
Green said he was “a little” surprised at the officials’ interpretation.
“I’m not surprised at the response,” Green said of his players piling in to defend Hoglander. “You’ve got a big guy going after the smallest guy on the team. Team’s going to respond to that.
“(Hoglander) is a hard-nosed little player. He’s not a dirty player by any means. He plays clean, he plays hard. I think he had a reverse hit there that maybe their guy didn’t like, but that is part of the game. As far as getting under other people’s skin, I think he does it just with hard work and tenacity. He’s a clean hockey player, and is not anywhere near afraid, that’s for sure.”
After the horrors of the season’s first three weeks, the Canucks should be able to handle an angry opponent. A little more intensity can’t be a bad thing for a desperate team.