The nadir of the Vancouver Canucks season was a Monday night, earlier in March, when the team led the visiting New York Islanders at 3-0 at the start of the third period. The lead seemed solid, notwithstanding the fact the Canucks had blown numerous leads under the watch of coach John Tortorella.
After the final 20 were concluded, it was 7-4 Islanders, upended and humiliated by one of the worst teams in the National Hockey League. The gossip thereafter was so intense that the talk was of an immediate firing of Tortorella. The figuring was why wait, if the deed was going to be done in any case at the end of the season.
Fortunes have turned, in some eyes. Some people sense a ship righted, a terrible storm passed. ESPN this week suggested Tortorella deserves another season to test himself, concluding so after a quick survey of some statistics. Then a colleague of mine today said because of the recent improvement, his take was also that Tortorella could be back come fall.
While the future of Tortorella in Vancouver remains undecided, the idea that the team's performance has improved is empty. It may be filed under Not As Bad, but the Vancouver Canucks have not suddenly become a hardy team – and the proof is its poor performance against better competition, getting outplayed each night and winning only one of four.
Recent play cannot be regarded as a plus on the resume of Tortorella's season. And the results in the past eight games don't really bode all that well for many tests in the final seven. The playoffs remain a fractional hope, so if and when Vancouver does miss the postseason for the first time in six years, the fiery coach has failed at the job he was hired to do: revive and spark a veteran team to a better showing than in previous years.
Looking at the past eight games, 5-2-1 is certainly better – a reversal of sorts – from the 2-5-1 of the eight games that came before. So on a relative basis, the recent past compared with the slightly less recent past, the Canucks are on a tear.
Hardly so. First off, of the recent eight games, the Canucks managed only three wins in regulation, with two of the wins coming in shootouts.
And the competition the Canucks faced was not top-tier, half the games against teams out of, or far out of, contention, including Florida and Buffalo.
It is the results in the four games against weak prey that skew total results. The puck-possession headline of the past eight games speaks strongly in the Canucks favour, with Vancouver controlling 55.7 per cent of the play. (Measuring Fenwick for percentage – shots on goal and shots missed, for and against, at even strength when the score is close.)
Such a figure is what the very best possession teams, the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, achieve over the course of the season. And through it all in 2013-14, the Canucks have been a solid possession team, 52.2 per cent, good for eighth in the NHL.
Against the four weak teams – Winnipeg, Florida, Nashville, Buffalo – Vancouver was dominant, controlling almost two-thirds of possession, 120 to 62. It hugely buoyed the headline figure.
Against the better teams – Washington, Tampa, Minnesota, Colorado – Vancouver was notably outplayed, controlling only 44.6 per cent of possession, 74 to 92. The Canucks were outplayed by all four better teams, even though they did beat Minnesota and scrape an overtime loss against Colorado.
If the recent trend continues, expect the Canucks to stumble through the rest of the calendar. The remaining seven games – six at home – feature five versus better opponents, the next five games: Anaheim, New York Rangers, L.A., Anaheim, Colorado. Then a last-weekend reprieve, Edmonton and Calgary.
The first test is immediate, Saturday at home, Hockey Night in Canada versus Anaheim, who beat Vancouver 9-1 the last time the teams played, in Anaheim in January. Another blowout probably isn't likely but the Canucks have shown little of late that suggest they can skate with the Ducks.