The system is the solution.
That mantra isn’t scrawled on the locker-room walls or printed on T-shirts. It doesn’t have to be because it’s the long-standing credo of the coach and it isn’t going to change. No matter how many breakdowns and odd-man rushes the Vancouver Canucks surrender on a four-game road trip that opens Thursday in Ottawa, the high-risk, low-reward system of an aggressive forecheck and pinching at will has pundits pinching themselves.
With seven losses in their last eight games and just nine goals in that span, why not revert to the trap? Why not drop back and clog up the middle to create turnovers rather than have a pinching defenceman caught up ice or blown assignments on offensive-zone faceoffs? But a Torts team in retreat? Forget about it.
“I think we’ve picked up the system,” John Tortorella responded when asked about another recent one-goal loss, those nine seconds of stalling in a 2-1 setback to the Chicago Blackhawks on Hockey Night in Canada. “The frustrating part for me is that on their second goal, [Mike] Santorelli loses the centre and it’s a forecheck off a faceoff that we run every time. He read the play wrong. He thought he could get the puck, and everybody says [Ryan] Stanton pinched and he shouldn’t have — but that’s his job.
“We need to support him with a centre and we had a breakdown and it’s in our net. That’s where we’re at. A mistake like that ends up beating us. We can’t get the goals regularly and we can’t step away and forget about the team concept because a couple of mistakes have cost us. We have to stick with it.”
Whether this is of comfort or a concern to the Canucks is up for debate. You can’t argue about the compete level because they showed some backbone Monday and had 39 shots in a 3-2 overtime loss to Los Angeles. And with 37, 35, 29, 42, 35, 36 and 26 shots in their previous outings before the loss to L.A., you can also wonder if the demands on aggressiveness in all zones with what is basically a two-line team is too taxing because Alex Burrows hasn’t scored in his 14 games since returning from a foot fracture. Santorelli has one goal in his last 21 games and Jason Garrison hasn’t scored in 24 outings. No player is going to admit to fatigue — even if it’s Henirk and Daniel Sedin who regularly play between 22 and 25 minutes a night and are expected to kill penalties and block shots — so there can be little margin for error. Especially in the Pacific Division, where the only heavyweight the Canucks have beat is San Jose.
If it’s about more focus and less distraction, getting out of town doesn’t hurt. The Canucks are 7-4-2 away from Rogers Arena and wins in St. Louis and San Jose were significant. Chris Higgins has played for Tortorella long enough to know that staying the course isn’t just some corny phrasing concocted by the coach. Not that it’s an easy system to grasp.
“Especially against Chicago,” said Higgins. “It seems like they don’t even have the puck and they were already blowing the zone with odd-man rushes, and that’s difficult to defend. And with goals being harder to come by, you sometimes cheat on the offensive end where you should be cheating on the defensive end if anything. We’ve said all along here during this stretch in trying to score goals that we can’t let the defence slip, but against good teams that’s going to cost you. We have to stay on the defensive side of the puck.”
On Monday, Stanton was pinching again and the Canucks were caught on another odd-man rush that led to the opening goal off a 2-on-1 break. And blown coverage on the tying and winning goals grate even more when you consider that five of the losses in the last eight games were by one goal. A power-play goal here, a better decision there and the Canucks aren’t sitting ninth in the Western Conference and outside of a wild-card playoff berth.
The system is the solution.