VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks are in unfamiliar territory.
Accustomed to division titles in recent years, they find themselves in a fight for their playoff lives with just over a quarter of the regular season remaining.
A horrendous start to 2014, where the Canucks picked up just four wins in 19 games, has seen the club tumble down the Western Conference standings and out of the top-eight seeds.
John Tortorella entered his first season as head coach trumpeting a puck-pressure system in all three zones and, while the Canucks have played well at times, it hasn’t seemed to stick.
Both the coach and his players have 22 games left to get things right.
“I just think we need to regain some of the details, the small things that I think we’re missing in our game that have turned into big things,” Tortorella said Thursday, after the team’s second practice following the Olympic break.
“It belongs on all of us, starting with me. We were hoping at this time of year that it would be an instinct—it is not. We’re still making a lot of the same mistakes that causes us problems with momentum, causes problems as far as goals against.”
Late collapses, a lack of scoring and a dismal power play have been hallmarks of the 10th-place Canucks, who went into the break having lost seven straight games in regulation and sit a point back of the final post-season berth.
“I think we had opportunities to win games—the other team wasn’t scoring too many goals against us—but we weren’t able to find that final play to inspire the team,” said Canucks forward Chris Higgins.
“We’ve had some lapses in our play that have hurt us. Our third-period play hasn’t been that great. It seems like we’re playing two-thirds of the game right now.”
Vancouver won five straight Northwest Division titles prior to this season but the team has found it much tougher sledding in the ultra-competitive Pacific Division, following realignment.
While many NHL coaches and players spent the break in sunny locales, Tortorella broke down film trying to figure out how his team has gotten itself into this predicament.
“(Earlier in the season) I saw us playing at a different level for not just four or five games, (but) for a number of weeks. So it’s there,” he said.
“We do not play with arrogance right now on the ice. I saw us do it for a long time this year. That’s what we need to get back to.”
Injuries have also played a big part in their recent struggles, with captain Henrik Sedin, forward Alexandre Burrows and defencemen Kevin Bieksa and Christopher Tanev still unavailable for the first two practices this week due to various ailments.
Add that to the Canucks’ Olympians still in Sochi—goalie Roberto Luongo, defencemen Dan Hamhuis and Alexander Edler, as well as forwards Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin—and Tortorella only had 12 regulars for practice at the University of British Columbia on Thursday.
Swiss teammates Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber are expected back this weekend after returning from Russia, but the Canucks have been forced to use members of the UBC Thunderbirds men’s team the last two days to have enough bodies on the ice.
The players who are in town know time is running short to get things back on track.
“We have the team to win here. We believe in that in the room and our coaching staff believes that,” said forward Zack Kassian.
“We weren’t playing our best. We know that. Coming into the second half with 22 games left, there’s no excuses. We need to find a way to win games and get into the playoffs.”
Canucks defenceman Jason Garrison said the break helped him re-energize, but added that the club’s current struggles weren’t far from his mind.
“Definitely could have enjoyed (the time off) more if things were better,” he said. “It’s one of those things, you know what’s coming, you know what’s ahead and it was a good brain break but you can’t let it go too far because we’ve got a lot to do coming up.”
The Canucks return to game action on Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues at home. Tortorella said getting pucks and bodies to the net—something that hasn’t happened nearly enough through 60 games—will be crucial, but also that Vancouver’s best players need to start stepping up when the games are on the line.
“We’re trying to work on manufacturing goals,” he said. “On top of that, I think we need big plays and I think we’re due. I think our top guys are due to make big plays at key time for us offensively.”
Notes: Tortorella, who is from Boston, pushed Friday’s practice time back to 12:30 p.m. PST so that his players can watch the men’s Olympic semifinal between Canada and the United States. Tortorella was an assistant coach on the silver-medal winning U.S. team back in 2010. “I can’t wait to watch the game but I hope—and really not just my team but for all the teams and all the players—that they get out of it healthy,” he said. “It’s great playing for their country, but this is their job and I’m just hoping all players from all teams get out of there healthy.” . . . Kassian gave a short rendition of O Canada during practice on Thursday when he learned that Canada’s women’s team had come back to beat the U.S. 3-2 in overtime to win Olympic gold.