| Watching the Canucks this season has been a lot like watching Formula One racing.
On the track, the team that starts from the pole position almost always wins and within the races there’s virtually no passing. In the Canucks’ first 30 games this season, the team that scores first is almost guaranteed victory and more often than not it’s a wire to wire win. In 25 of the first 30 Canucks games – and 21 of the last 23 – the team that has jumped into the lead has gone on to win.
What happened to the ‘new’ NHL, the one where no lead was supposed to be safe no matter the score or the time left in a hockey game? That certainly hasn’t been the case in games involving the Canucks this season.
When the Canucks get the first goal of a hockey game this season, they are 14-3. The 14 victories is fourth best in the National Hockey League and the .824 winning percentage in that situation ranks sixth in the league. Thanks in large part to the goaltending of Roberto Luongo, the Canucks have shown that if they can get out in front, they are remarkably tough to come back on.
The flip side of that – and what has to be a concern to the Canucks coaching staff – is that when the other team opens the scoring, the Canucks are just 2-8-3 on the season with Monday’s 4-2 loss in Los Angeles the latest addition to that statistic. So far this season, the league average for wins when falling behind is 4.3. Only Tampa Bay and Minnesota have fewer wins than Vancouver when giving up the first goal and the Canucks’ .154 winning percentage in that situation ranks them 25th in a 30-team league.
Overall teams that open the scoring this season are 311-86-41 while teams giving up that first goal are 129-276-37. In November, the Canucks scored first nine times and were 9-2-2. December is telling a different story.
Four times now in the last five outings the Canucks have surrendered the game’s first goal (@ Minnesota on December 2nd, @ Nashville December 6th, vs. Pittsburgh last Saturday and @ L-A on Monday). It’s a credit to the Canucks that in all four of those games they’ve managed to get the next goal to even the score. But in only one of those games (the 5-2 victory over the Predators) have they ever managed to get the lead. That game in Music City, USA ended a run of 15 straight Canucks games where the team that opened the scoring also walked away with the two points up for grabs. And where the Canucks are concerned, they’ve managed to win just one of the last 11 games when they’ve failed to get on the scoreboard first.
It’s a tough league to score in and so often when you’re trailing you’re spending all of your energy chasing your opponents, trying to get the puck to mount a comeback. Unfortunately, when you’re chasing and don’t have the puck, often times you wind up taking penalties in an attempt to get it back. For whatever reasons, this year’s squad has not shown the knack for getting the goal it needs when down 1-0 or even when tied 1-1.
One of the best qualities of last year’s team was its ability to manufacture points regardless the situation it was in. Last year when the Canucks gave up the first goal of a game, they didn’t seem to care. It just meant a slightly tougher challenge, but the team still finished with an impressive 15-20-3 mark (.395).
It seems too simple to believe that the moment a goal is scored in a Canucks game, the end result is determined. But so far this season, that’s been the case on all but five nights. There’s no way to control who scores first in a hockey game – a strange bounce, an early power play or any number of other factors can lead to a goal. But the Canucks have to find a way to up their battle level when falling behind. The four recent games where they’ve fought back to tie the contest at 1-1 is perhaps an indication that they’re coming around. But they still haven’t found a way to turn deficits into leads with any regularity.
In just three of the 13 games this season when the Canucks have fallen behind 1-0, have they ever managed to hold a lead. It happened on October 6th when they beat the Flames 4-3 in overtime in Calgary, November 20th when they lost 5-4 in a shootout at Edmonton and last week in Nashville. Otherwise, they’ve always been trailing or tied.
The other issue is that when the Canucks have surrendered the first goal of a game, their offence is almost non-existent. Those same three games where the Canucks have fought back to lead are the only three games this year the team has scored more than two goals in a game in which they failed to open the scoring.
Come playoff time the Canucks need to possess that ability to weather an early storm and still manage to stay in a hockey game. Last spring, they opened the scoring in just five of their 12 post-season contests and were 2-5 in the games they didn’t.
Hockey is a 60 minute game (sometimes longer) for a reason. But for whatever reason this season, it seems the games the Canucks are in aren’t over at the final buzzer -- but rather whenever the first puck enters the net.