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Canucks still developing mindset to finish games

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- John Tortorella isn't worrying so much about Xs and Os after watching his Vancouver Canucks give up a goal and blow a lead with the opposing goalie pulled for the fifth time this season.

The first-year Canucks coach dismissed the shootout as a "gimmick" when asked about his team's 4-for-32 futility in the tiebreaker. And he isn't wondering if he has the personnel to beat top teams after giving up 98 shots in weekend losses to the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings that left Vancouver with four wins in 13 games against teams above them in the Western Conference standings.

For Tortorella it's all about a mindset, and in his estimation so far the Canucks haven't developed the right one to beat the best.

"Situational play is a mindset we have not totally grasped and that's a mental toughness to me," Tortorella said after practice Thursday.

For Canucks coach John Tortorella winning games is all about a mindset, and in his estimation so far his team hasn't developed the right one to beat the Western Conference's best. (Photo: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI)

It's that mindset the coach still was trying to change as the Canucks tried to snap a five-game losing skid against the St. Louis Blues on Friday before another tough trip down the West Coast next week.

"I believe you can develop that type of mental toughness to play in the areas at certain times, at certain momentums of games," Tortorella said. "At times we have done it this year and obviously of late we haven't."

Vancouver rolled through December at 10-1-2, but is 0-2-2 in 2014.

They have yet to beat the Kings (0-2-1) or Ducks (0-1-1) this season, and finished their series against the San Jose Sharks at 1-2-1. The Canucks will have to learn how to run with the big boys in the Pacific Division, if not just to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs then certainly to have any chance of lasting long in them.

"I do know, and I think our team knows, we certainly have to make some changes on our stiffness, especially within our division," said Tortorella, who was hired after one win in the last two postseasons against Los Angeles and San Jose cost coach Alain Vigneault his job.

"I told the club it's not just within our division, but the second half of the year it gets stingy, it gets harder. Teams are battling for each and every point. We have to keep growing as a team. We have to be harder and we have to continue to grow in that area. And then if you are fortunate enough to make it, then you are there, you are in that mindset of what you need to be doing come playoff time."

The Kings, Ducks and Blues, who come into Rogers Arena on Friday riding a seven-game win streak, are big, physical teams that can wear down opponents on the forecheck and cycle games.

The Canucks may not be as physically imposing, especially among their top-six forwards, but they have shown signs of being able to tire opponents when they play the aggressive, attacking style Tortorella still is trying to instill. But too often lately, especially during losses last weekend to the Ducks and Kings, it has gone missing, leaving an injury-depleted defense hemmed in its own end for prolonged periods and overtaxing a top-four already playing a lot.

"They were getting pucks out clean and jamming it down our throat," Kevin Bieksa said, "and we were working our butts off to get it back and break it out and put it in, and once we did we were not sustaining any pressure in their end. When you are a [defenseman] and you are chasing a guy around and he is protecting the puck and you are hitting him and bouncing off him and you can't get there, it takes a lot out of you and you feel it the next shift. When we're on our game we're doing that."

There have been some signs of it, even against the top teams.

"We dominated parts of those games in California and everyone saw it and we know it as a team," forward Zack Kassian said. "You guys [the media] use the word heavy, but we have some heavy bodies in here too. We're a good team. We just need to play a full 60 minutes."

Injuries haven't helped. The Canucks' advanced possession statistics have declined steadily since top-line forward Alexandre Burrows broke his jaw Dec. 1 and top-four defenseman Alexander Edler sprained his knee two days later. Both are skating with the team and could be back soon.

Bieksa refused to point to injuries, citing the December record while playing through them. Like his coach, Bieksa said it's more about a mindset that center Ryan Kesler said still is a work in progress.

"We're still figuring it out as a team, still learning," Kesler said. "To me [mindset] means you just have to close out games. You have to keep being aggressive, think you can win and know you are going to win."

Tortorella's challenge is making sure his players still believe that amid the worst slump of the season, especially against the best teams in the West. The coach insists he has seen enough glimpses of that "stiffness" he wants that he still believes it himself.

"I tell the players they are [in trouble] if I see it once because I know it's there," he said. "When you are developing the identity of a hockey club it falls on the coach to demand it and keep it there."

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