VANCOUVER - Bleacher seating for next weekend's Davis Cup tie between Canada and Spain was being installed as the Vancouver Canucks practised Thursday at UBC's Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.
That tennis backdrop seemed apropos because the Canucks have had more than a little trouble holding serve so far this season.
As good as Wednesday night's 3-2 shootout victory over the Calgary Flames felt for a team that was growing desperate for its first win, it was more difficult than it needed to be.
For the second straight game, the Canucks built a 2-0 lead and couldn't hang on. It was a near carbon copy of Sunday night, when they also coughed up a 2-0 lead to the Edmonton Oilers and ended up losing 3-2 in a shootout.
The Canucks have clearly not found that killer instinct in the early going of this short NHL season. They need someone to make like Novak Djokovic and deliver a clutch ace or two at crucial times. Too often in the early going, the Canucks have served up double-faults when leading.
"We have been good in the past at doing that, being able to close out teams and not give them a sniff if we are up by a couple of goals," forward Alex Burrows said Thursday before the Canucks headed south for a three-game California road trip that starts Friday night in Anaheim.
"We are usually a good team, when we get the lead we're tough to play against," added Daniel Sedin. "And that hasn't been the case so far. That's getting pucks deep, forechecking the right way, and having guys in the right positions and we've been kind of off in that department. That's also a work in progress and we'll be better every game."
The fact the Canucks have faded badly in the second half of games has raised questions about fitness. The Canucks had fewer players head overseas to play than most teams and there was concern that could hurt them in the early going.
The players insist that's not a problem, although coach Alain Vigneault did end Thursday's practice with a conditioning skate.
"I sure hope not because we have been off for eight months," Burrows said. "The gas tank should be full right now. It's just a matter of getting that urgency and knowing that these points are really important. I know we have the group that knows what it takes and we're going to go out there and prove it and make sure we are better in the last 30 minutes. In all three games we weren't very good in the second half, so we have to be much better on the road."
Team captain Henrik Sedin also dismissed the suggestion that the Canucks have been running on empty late in games.
"I don't think so," he said. "We made the wrong plays, we stopped doing the things we had to do. It's about getting pucks deep and keeping our shifts shorter is a big thing, too. We are staying on the ice an extra 10 or 15 seconds when they are changing and they get the puck and all of a sudden we are in their end for another 10, 15 or 20 seconds. It makes us look tired, I think, as a team. We should be the team that is keeping the shifts short and being fresh."
After outshooting the Flames 25-9 in the first half of Wednesday's game, Calgary turned the tables and outshot Vancouver 27-11 the rest of the way.
Vigneault think a timely power play would have made the difference against both the Oilers and Flames.
"The last two games in the third period our power play has the opportunity to win us those games," Vigneault said. "Those are pressure moments, those are our top players, they have done it for us in continuous fashion and I am confident they can keep doing doing it for us."
By top players, Vigneault especially means the Sedins. He semi called out the twins after Wednesday night's win over the Flames. Asked in his post-game session with reporters how he liked the play of the Sedins and new linemate Zack Kassian, Vigneault responded: "I liked Zack. I think Danny and Hank are obviously trying to find their rhythm right now. They haven’t played until a week ago while Zack has been playing since September. I believe, without a doubt, that both Danny and Hank have a lot more to give and they will."
A day later, the Sedins weren't exactly reeling from the criticism from their coach.
"I heard about it this morning, but he's usually right when he says those things and we know we have to be better," Daniel said. "He has called us worse."
Moments earlier, Henrik had said the same thing: "He's called us out worse than that, so that's not a problem. We know we have to be better."
See, they are identical twins.
Vigneault has proven over the past six seasons that he knows when to push players' buttons. And he didn't back down on Thursday.
"I don't think I was hard on them yesterday at all, other than the fact they (the media) asked me about that line and I said I liked Zack," Vigneault said. "That being said I do think the twins do have a lot more to give. They are our top players and I am more demanding on them than I am on anybody else on our team. That should be the case because they are our top players. They know that, they know how I am, they know my moods and they'll deal with it."
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