TORONTO - There were 19,622 people at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday to see another third-period disintegration by the Vancouver Canucks, and it seemed most of them left the arena through the hallway that runs past the visiting team’s dressing room.
Stationary as an island amid this rushing current of players, their friends and relatives, fans, reporters and employees stood Canucks’ owner Francesco Aquilini and general manager Mike Gillis, who seemed to be on the receiving end of the conversation.
Aquilini, who had business in Toronto, had travelled to Montreal for Thursday’s 5-2 Canucks’ loss to the Canadiens, then witnessed Saturday’s 3-1 collapse against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
About 20 minutes after the Canucks’ seventh straight loss in regulation time, Vancouver coach John Tortorella took the blame for his players’ chronic third-period failures, which against the Leafs meant turning a one-goal lead into a two-goal loss. He said his coaching staff had failed to teach players the details of situational hockey.
But we all know it’s not the first-year coach that Aquilini and his family are likely to hold chiefly responsible if the Canucks’ National Hockey League season swirls completely out of sight and down the toilet.
The last time the Canucks missed the playoffs, in 2008, Aquilini fired his general manager.
“When we go home tonight and watch the playoffs, we won’t be watching the Vancouver Canucks and that’s unacceptable to us as owners,” Aquilini explained after terminating Dave Nonis.
It didn’t matter to the Aquilinis that the Canucks were forced to use 11 defencemen that season due to an epidemic of blueline injuries. Maybe it won’t matter, when the accounting is done on this season, that these Canucks also have used 11 defencemen in Vancouver’s worst injury crisis since 2008.
There is also a frightening similarity between the Canucks’ current 4-13-3 unravelling and a 3-7-3 January slump that imperilled the 2008 team.
The Aquilinis embrace their status as fans first. They are desperate to see the Canucks win and have provided Gillis a budget unlimited except for the NHL’s $64.3-million-US ceiling on player salaries. In return, they demand a winner that will go far enough in the Stanley Cup tournament to repay some of the owners’ millions. The Canucks have won one playoff game in two seasons since going to the Stanley Cup Final.
Realistically, as we’ve explained before in this space, this was never going to be the season the Canucks loaded up for another attempt at Vancouver’s first Stanley Cup since 1915. But nobody envisioned the disaster of the last six weeks, losing outright in seven straight games for the first time since 1998, or coming home pointless from a five-game trip for the first time since 1997.
“I don’t know what the hell’s going on,” Canuck centre Brad Richardson said Saturday. “It’s brutal. We’re all pretty pissed off, frustrated.”
Imagine how the Aquilinis must feel.
Tortorella and his staff will spend the Olympic break reassessing what and how they have taught players, and be ready to re-program them if necessary when the Canucks start practising again on Feb. 19, one week before they open a 22-game sprint to finish line with a home game against the St. Louis Blues.
But the owners and Gillis will also be reassessing over the next couple of weeks, deciding if the Canucks need to add players just to make the playoffs in April.
It is extraordinary that the Canucks sit only one point out of playoff position in the Western Conference, although Vancouver has played two games more than the Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes, the teams tied for eighth place.
“Yeah, thank god we won in December,” Canuck winger Daniel Sedin said Saturday, before travelling to Sochi to play for Sweden’s Olympic team. “We’re right there. As a team, we’ve got to stay positive and look for those last 22 games to be playoff games and must-wins, all of them.”
Positivity around the Canucks has been as rare as third-period goals by forwards. Mike Santorelli, out for the season due to shoulder surgery, was the last Canuck forward to score in the third period of a game — a 2-1 win against the Blues on Jan. 10. In 14 games since then, Vancouver has been outscored 20-3 in the final period and lost 11 times.
With a patchwork lineup, they scored only six goals on their five-game trip that ended with the Canucks’ first loss to the Maple Leafs since 2003.
“It was a dog’s breakfast as far as a trip,” Tortorella said. “We’re in a spiral. (The Olympic break) couldn’t come at a better time — mentally and getting some guys back also.
“Our biggest challenge is, first of all, not to blow ourselves up. We still need to keep a positive frame and I think this break will help. But we need to be a detail-oriented team. The third periods, the mistakes we make, are something we just haven’t done a good enough job teaching.”
Tortorella hopes defencemen Chris Tanev (thumb) and Kevin Bieksa (knee) and top forward Henrik Sedin (ribs) will fully heal during the Olympics. The coach said his six-game suspension for “stupidity” — storming the Calgary Flames’ locker-room between periods on Jan. 18 — exacerbated the Canucks’ problems.
The Olympic break should be long enough for players to shed mental baggage and return with a fresh, upbeat mindset, winger Jannik Hansen said.
“I hope so because that’s a key,” Tortorella said. “Sometimes you get into a situation — and this is a doozy — you just can’t even see the light. I think a fresh break and not even thinking about hockey (will help), and then coming back we’re going to have a bit of a mini-training camp. We’ve got a number of days where we can do some work.”
And consider what has gone terribly wrong.
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