VANCOUVER – Mistakes have cost the Vancouver Canucks time and time again during this lost season.
With newly minted president of hockey operations Trevor Linden looking on from above one day after being handed the keys to the franchise, it was more of the same on Thursday night.
The Canucks directed 40 shots on goal and played well for long stretches, but turnovers at key moments were the difference as the Colorado Avalanche downed Vancouver 4-2.
“I think it was there. Again, I think it’s like a lot of other games when we lose,” said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, who opened the scoring in the first period. “Shooting enough pucks to the net, enough chances to win but we’re making crucial mistakes in the wrong areas of the ice. That’s been something that’s been happening all year.”
Vancouver’s captain for seven of his 19 seasons in NHL, Linden was hired on Wednesday to replace president and general manager Mike Gillis, who was fired after the Canucks were officially eliminated from post-season contention for the first time in six years following a dismal 3-0 home loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Monday.
What Linden saw Thursday was a team that produced a solid effort in a meaningless outing, but also one that is still finding its way in first-year head coach John Tortorella’s system with only two games left in the regular season.
“That’s great to get 40 shots, but as a group we were too lax defensively,” said Canucks forward Ryan Kesler. “Playing defence is most of the time a thankless job and it’s hard work.”
Tyson Barrie buried the winner for Colorado with the score tied 2-2 and the teams playing 4-on-4 in the third period. The 22-year-old defenceman from Victoria moved in on a 2-on-1 rush, toe-dragged around a sprawling Alexander Edler and rifled his 13th of the season, and fifth game winner, past a helpless Jacob Markstrom.
“We hung Markstrom out to dry,” said Kesler. “He played good for us tonight and a couple of those goals we hung him out to dry and he had no chance.”
Tortorella said he was happy with his team’s effort in a difficult spot, but lamented the lack of finish that has been commonplace during his time behind the Canucks’ bench.
“We played well, we played hard. It takes us a lot of scoring chances to score a goal,” said Tortorella. “That has been a reoccurring theme throughout the year, but I have no beef with our team as far as how hard they played. We generated some good scoring chances in the third period, they did too … we need a lot of chances to score.”
Paul Stastny added two goals and Semyon Varlamov stopped 38 shots for Colorado (52-21-7), which is 8-0-1 in its last nine games and took over top spot in the Central Division ahead of the scuffling St. Louis Blues. John Mitchell scored into an empty net for Colorado in the final minute.
The Blues, who have lost four straight, and Avalanche each have 111 points with two games left on the schedule, but Colorado holds the tiebreaker.
After Barrie gave the Avalanche their 3-2 edge, Edler had a chance to tie the game with just over five minutes to go, but Varlamov made a great glove save on the Canucks defenceman.
“Those are big points for us,” said Barrie. “We have two games left and we know what’s on the line. Varly was outstanding like he has been all year and these next two games are big.”
David Booth had the other goal for Vancouver (35-34-11), which got 24 saves from Markstrom in his first start for the Canucks. Dan Hamhuis added two assists.
Markstrom was acquired as part of the Roberto Luongo trade with the Florida Panthers last month, but got into just one game in relief before Thursday as Eddie Lack started 19 straight in the Canucks’ failed attempt to make the playoffs.
“No good enough,” said Markstrom. “It felt good to be out there and everything felt good, but obviously you want to start with a win.”
Following a scoreless middle period, Stastny snapped a 1-1 tie with his second of the night and 25th of the season at 5:21 of the third, firing home a rebound off Eric Johnson’s shot from the faceoff circle.
Booth tied the game 1:39 later with his ninth of the campaign, roofing Hamhuis’ rebound off the end boards over Varlamov’s shoulder from in tight.
The Avalanche tied a franchise record with 52 wins and Varlamov broke rookie head coach Patrick Roy’s mark of 40 wins in a season by a Colorado goaltender after collecting his 41st of the campaign.
“The coach is very happy,” Roy deadpanned. “We’re going to call Patrick tomorrow to let him know that Varly beat the record and I am sure he is going to be OK with it.”
Linden, who was shown on the video board before Thursday’s opening faceoff and received a nice applause, didn’t have to look far to see the kind of success former players can have in management. Avalanche executive vice-president of hockey operations Joe Sakic has his team in a battle for top spot in the Central Division, while Roy is in the running for the Jack Adams Trophy for a Colorado team that finished 29th last season.
But Linden’s mountain might be even tougher to the climb. The Avalanche have a tremendous young core, led by Barrie, captain Gabriel Landeskog and last year’s No. 1 pick Nathan MacKinnon—something the Canucks are sorely lacking.
It should be noted that the Edmonton Oilers have also tried the former-players-in-management route and have failed to make the playoffs every year since 2006.
Vancouver opened the scoring on Thursday when Sedin tipped home his 11th of the season off a point shot from Hamhuis at 13:52 of the first period.
Tortorella said earlier this week that his young players would get a chance to play with three meaningless games left on the schedule, and a play by Vancouver rookie Niklas Jensen directly led to Colorado’s tying goal with 1:21 to go in the period.
Stastny stripped Jensen of the puck at the Avalanche blue-line and he raced in alone, snapping his 24th through Markstrom’s five-hole.
“I thought our guys handled themselves very well tonight. I thought they played hard right on through,” said Tortorella. “It’s hard. These guys want to play for something. They know in a couple days we’re done.
“It’s a difficult situation but it’s no excuse no matter where we’re at not to finish the season the proper way and we’re going to keep on trying to that for the next couple of games here.”
Notes: Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa said after the game that he will represent Canada at the world championships. … The Canucks will honour former head coach and general manager Pat Quinn before Sunday’s season finale against the Calgary Flames. … Canucks defenceman Jason Garrison was a healthy scratch as Vancouver chose to dress rookie Frank Corrado. … Avalanche forward Matt Duchene remains out with a knee injury. … Vancouver’s next game is Saturday night in Edmonton against the Oilers. … Colorado also has two games left on its schedule, both on the road, Friday against the San Jose Sharks and Sunday against Anaheim Ducks.