The Canucks largely outperformed the Winnipeg Jets in the first half of Wednesday’s 4-1 loss, but Vancouver had the second-best goaltender as Jacob Markstrom was outnumbered by Connor Hellebuyck, who made 37 saves.
The extent to which Markstrom can determine whether the Canucks pass or fail in their Stanley Cup qualifying series against the Minnesota Wild was highlighted by this: In Vancouver’s lone pre-tournament warm-up, Markstrom got 60 minutes and the substitute. Thatcher Demko did not have one.
“It was nice to be there,” Markstrom said after his first game since minor knee surgery on February 26. “It’s been a long time – since February, when we played Boston at home. It was nice to be there and I felt the longer the game went on the more details and things like that started to fall into place. You want to win every game, but it was nice to be back and feel it just got better and better as the game went on.
“It was nice to have the full 60 – I’m not going to lie. After two periods… I felt a little bad with detail work, and in the third period I felt it got better. So playing a full game has definitely helped me see where my game is and what I need to work on.
With three days and at least two practices before the Canucks open their five-game series against the Wild on Sunday, Markstrom said he had time to polish his game with goaltending coach Ian Clark.
“Fairly close,” Markstrom said of his availability. “I feel like it’s a good test. Clarkie and I can sit down and see what we need to work on a bit more. We have time to do that before the start of the series against Minnesota. It’s going to be an important week to move my game forward and hit its peak next week.
Canucks coach Travis Green dressed 13 forwards on Wednesday, and none of them was 18-goal scorer Jake Virtanen, who lost his third row spot in week one of training camp and did not impress his boss enough to regain a regular place.
Rookie Zack MacEwen played as an additional forward against the Jets, which theoretically doesn’t leave Virtanen higher than 14th on the depth chart on Wednesday.
In a first intermission interview with Sportsnet, Vancouver general manager Jim Benning cautioned against overreading Virtanen’s programming omission, but his warning would be largely ignored. It was the teams’ only playoff repeat, vital preparation for the closest thing the Canucks will have to playoff hockey since 2015.
The training was a try for the first game. Green and his team now have time to reassess.
One thing that won’t change is Markstrom’s status. He was the Canucks’ MVP this season and remains Vancouver’s biggest potential advantage over Minnesota. But the goalie will have to play better than Wednesday, when his best job came with the three-goal Canucks.
Markstrom’s failure was simply that he hadn’t made enough saves. When the Jets got sloppy, which was throughout the first period, Hellebuyck saved his team. When the Canucks were sloppy in the second period, Markstrom couldn’t save his teammates.
The Jets were just 1-0 late in the second – on scoring chances the Canucks could have been two or three goals ahead by that point – when Nikolaj Ehlers and Dimitri Kulikov took advantage of Vancouver’s mistakes by scoring goals 85 seconds apart.
Canucks defenseman Oscar Fantenberg sank into the middle of the ice in the neutral zone without adequate coverage, leaving an open wing for Patrik Laine to skate in a 2 and 1. While Tyler Myers, Fantenberg’s defensive partner, ran aground, Markstrom stopped Laine’s shot, but he couldn’t stop Ehler’s rebound attempt which made it 2-0 at 14:54.
Two shifts later, Tanner Pearson’s chip was maintained at the Vancouver blue line, leaving two Jets behind Canucks defensemen. Laine dropped a pass into the lunge to follow Kulikov, whose shot rattled between Markstrom’s arm and chest.
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The Canucks, who dominated for periods in the first half of the game and were lucky enough to tie him on Brock Boeser’s breakaway early in the second period, suddenly lost three goals.
“I thought our team played a solid game,” said Canucks captain Bo Horvat. “We overcame them, we beat them. I thought we had done a lot of really good things. (But) we’ve had three turnovers, and against a team like that – they have elite scorers and good forwards – they’re going to capitalize on it. This is why we are playing an exhibition game. It’s something that we can work on, that we can video talk about, and get ready for Minnesota next Sunday. ”
Horvat’s line with Boeser and Pearson had a good head-to-head night against Mark Scheifele’s line for Winnipeg.
Boeser was the most dangerous Canuck and the best of Vancouver’s young stars. After looking dominant in training camp, defenseman Quinn Hughes didn’t stand out against the Jets like he did against his teammates in the past two weeks, but he was still pretty good. Elias Pettersson looked particularly quick and had some good times, but couldn’t generate a goal.
The Canucks didn’t force a puck past Hellebuyck until 13:13 of the final period when Antoine Roussel blocked in Adam Gaudette’s rebound from the loop to make it 3-1 before the Jets captain, Blake Wheeler, does not score in an empty net.
Micheal Ferland, the surprise of Vancouver training camp after returning from what looked like career-threatening concussion and balance issues, began in what was once Virtanen’s place on a line with Gaudette, but failed to generate much momentum or scoring chances. It wasn’t unique to the Canucks’ last six, which is a concern heading into the playoffs against the four-row Wild.
After two periods, no Canucks forward outside the first two rows was close to 50 percent range in pro and con shooting attempts.
An exhibition game after a four-month layoff is not ideal for anyone. But that’s all the Canucks have. Ready not ready.