VANCOUVER – Call it the John Tortorella Revenge Tour.
In a span of eight days, the Columbus Blue Jackets took four points off the Vancouver Canucks and donated another four to the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. So that’s negative eight points for the Canucks in the Pacific Division playoff race.
Spectacularly one-and-done as the Canucks’ coach after a 2013-14 season that saw Vancouver miss the playoffs for the first time in six years, Tortorella, impossibly, has the Blue Jackets still holding down a playoff spot in the merciless Eastern Conference despite Columbus leading the National Hockey League in injuries and nightly dressing a lineup that comes with a media guide.
Playing their second game is as many nights – after losing Saturday in Edmonton – the Blue Jackets largely suffocated the Canucks, refusing to yield any space in front of their net and beating Vancouver 2-1.
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It occurred one week after the Canucks blew a two-goal lead in Columbus in the final eight minutes and lost 5-3, spooking the team and its fan base and making clear to all that Vancouver may actually miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs after squandering a nine-point cushion in the standings.
Vancouver has lost five of its last six games. Columbus has won three out of 15, but swept the Canucks.
Sunday’s loss dropped the Canucks down one spot to the second wild-card position in the Western Conference, tied with the Nashville Predators but ahead in the standings only because of one additional regulation-and-overtime victory.
“At this time of year, you’ve just got to push through it and focus on ourselves,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said. “The more you scoreboard watch, the more you focus on other teams instead of yourself. And it’s going to bite you.
“You got to give (Columbus) credit; they defended really well tonight. They didn’t give us a tonne, they blocked a lot of shots. We have to figure out ways to get that job done and get that win. They buy into their system. They’ve won in the playoffs, they know what it takes to get there. And they know how to protect leads.”
Almost everything Horvat said in those last two sentences could have been followed by “and we don’t.” Or, if you’re being generous, “and we’re still learning.”
Down 2-0 and needing a push to start the third period, the Canucks were dominated for several minutes and needed goalie Thatcher Demko to keep them close.
Elias Pettersson burst with anger and intent from the penalty box, made up a 20-foot deficit on Columbus defenceman Ryan Murray in a race for the puck, and scored brilliantly while getting chopped down on a breakaway to bring the Canucks alive at 8:19 of the third period.
But Vancouver, which hit three posts and went 0-for-3 on the power play, couldn’t get another puck past rookie goalie Elvis Merzlikins. He finished with 26 saves.
Pettersson had been penalized at 6:07 for accidentally elbowing Blue Jacket Eric Robinson.
“Yeah, I was angry,” the Canucks star said of the call. “It woke something up inside of me. I was mad and wanted to play hard the next shift. The puck came out, I won the race and scored a goal. I just tried to use my anger as fuel.”
It was one of the few times the Blue Jackets’ defence broke down.
Columbus is fourth in the NHL in goals-against. Vancouver is not.
Coverage breakdowns, and high-quality scoring chances against, have been recurring problems for the Canucks this season, and two more of them gave the Jackets all the goals they needed.
Both plays were similar, low-to-high passes from behind the goal-line that led to open chances in the slot that Emil Bemstrom and Robinson buried in the second period.
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Yes, Canucks defenceman Alex Edler got caught on the wrong side of setup man Pierre-Luc Dubois on the first goal, and winger Antoine Roussel seemed confused on the second when he let Columbus defenceman David Savard skate away from him with the puck.
But the real problem was the lack of awareness by the grove of Canucks planted in front of the net, watching the puck instead of finding someone to check. Canucks outnumbered Blue Jackets around the net on both plays.
“I think it’s just end-zone awareness,” Horvat said. “Those are two Grade-A opportunities that we can’t let happen. We take a lot of pride in our defensive game, and when you’re out there you’ve got to be aware who’s on the ice and where guys are. And on those two plays, we weren’t and they cost us. It was just two breakdowns that cost you the game.”
Demko, who stopped 20 of 22 shots, said: “A lot of teams are trying that. Guys are looking for the soft areas (in the slot). It’s something that I’m aware of. They’re challenging plays, but you’ve got to try to find a solution for it.”
The Canucks are 20th in team defence, allowing a full half-goal-per-game more than the Blue Jackets.
“It’s small (details),” Pettersson said. “As much as this game sucks to lose, we still have to have a short memory and prepare for next game and try to win that one. If you live too much in the past, it’s not going to be good for you.”
No, the past has rarely been good for the Canucks.
They close a four-game homestand Tuesday against the New York Islanders, before playing back-to-back road games in Arizona and Colorado.