DALLAS – On Tuesday, the Vancouver Canucks looked like they may not be strong enough physically. On Thursday, they weren't strong enough mentally.
With the National Hockey League playoffs less than two weeks away, you wonder if the Canucks simply aren't strong enough, period.
Given the chance to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup tournament and move closer to another Northwest Division title, the Canucks collapsed early in the third period against the plucky but underwhelming Dallas Stars, surrendering three easy goals and losing 5-1 to end a five-game road trip with only two wins. The Canucks led in all five games.
This is not just about winning and losing. Other teams are allowed to win, too. Most of them, with the regular-season finish line in sight, are desperate. The Stars, chasing the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, are 6-1 since dealing away a bunch of their top players at the NHL trade deadline.
The St. Louis Blues, who beat the Canucks 2-1 in a shootout on Tuesday, are capable of challenging for the Stanley Cup.
But the gaps in the Canucks' game, the bewildering spells when either their hands or heads aren't functioning, are disconcerting.
They gave up four goals in the third period here. They bumbled through the second period Monday in Nashville before overpowering a weak Predator team. Saturday in Denver, against an Avalanche team that was 30th in NHL standings, the Canucks gagged on third-period leads twice and surrendered a winning goal with 7.6 seconds left in the regulation time.
They have only four games remaining. As coach Alain Vigneault will remind you, they haven't even clinched a playoff spot.
It was this time one year ago the Canucks were eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings in the opening round of the playoffs, then admitted they struggled to reach the level of intensity required for the Stanley Cup tournament.
That level, apparent in St. Louis, vanished in Dallas when the Stars surged in the third, fueled by a series of Canuck mistakes.
“It's very surprising,” Canuck goalie Cory Schneider said. “With our group, we've been together a long time, played together in a lot of big games. We've had successful seasons, so we should know how to take care of third periods. We went over it after the Colorado game. Sometimes it's there, the effort and execution, and other times it's just not.
“Two years ago, we ran away with the league. We played every game hard and set all sorts of records for the franchise, and it carried into the playoffs. We didn't need to try to get to that next level; we were there all season. Again, I think this group should know how to (reach that level) on a regular basis and not just decide to pick it up for certain games and at certain points.
“This is the time of year when you want to be trending upward and getting your game to where it should be, not scrambling around late in games trying to find ways to get points. We don't want to back into the playoffs. We don't want to cross our fingers and hope other teams lose to clinch a playoff spot or our division.”
The loss left the Canucks four points ahead of the Minnesota Wild, pending their division rival's game late Thursday against the San Jose Sharks.
Vancouver next plays at home Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings.
“We're 44 games into the season,” Schneider said. “Playoffs start in a week and a half. I think we're past the point of learning lessons. I think we need to go out and do it and execute and be the team we know we can be because I don't think we're showing it for a full 60 minutes. We have a good 20, 30, maybe 40 minutes and the rest we're kind of leaving up to chance, which is unlike us.
“If you want to win in the playoffs, you've got to protect leads. And right now, we're not as good as we should be at it and what we expect of ourselves. This was a team the past few years, when we got a lead, it was game over. Whether it's me coming up with some big saves in the third to preserve it or us as a group just playing harder, we've got to find a way.”
After Canuck defenceman Cam Barker drifted left, opening a channel for streaking Stars' forward Cody Eakin, Schneider allowed a shot to rattle between his pads as Dallas broke a 1-1 tie 1:36 into the third period.
Then Canuck Alex Burrows passed between the skates of last-man-back teammate Keith Ballard, setting up Jamie Benn's breakaway goal at 4:09. And Ray Whitney made it 4-1 on a rebound at 7:03 after Canuck winger Zack Kassian, thinking centre Andrew Ebbett had taken his place along the boards, passed directly to Stars' defenceman Brenden Dillon at the Vancouver blueline.
None of these goals were earned.
“This can't happen where you give up a goal in the third and all of a sudden everything falls apart,” Canuck captain Henrik Sedin said. “That's not the team we have.”
Canuck Derek Roy, one of the players traded by the Stars earlier this month, and former teammate Ray Whitney traded goals in the second period. Erik Cole added a late power-play goal for Dallas. Stars' goalie Kari Lehtonen made 37 saves.
“Once we got down, we started playing a little bit loose and taking chances,” Canuck defenceman Dan Hamhuis said. “We don't need to do that. If we stick with our game and system, we have a better chance of winning. To give up that many goals in the third period in an important game, we're all pretty disappointed and frustrated to let that happen.
“We need to learn from it and figure out how to deal better with those situations.”
But as Schneider said, it's getting late for lessons.
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