Junior Canucks captain Riley Muise celebrated his birthday with a late third-period goal against the North Peace Navigators on Friday. But that was the only on-ice rejoicing he and his teammates partook in, as they fell 5-1 to the Navs', dropping their sixth consecutive game.
Though the score suggests differently, the Canucks were a better team than they have been the last two weeks.
“It was disappointing the way we came out in that game. I don’t know if we reached bottom finally,” remarked Canucks head coach Eric Fulton on seeing a better effort from his guys on Friday than on Thursday when his team was punished 6-1 by Fort St. John.
“When you know you’re not doing what you’re supposed to, and the guy beside you is not doing what he is supposed to, then it’s not really a friendly environment. Tonight all those guys, they’re not happy that they lost, but they’re happy with the way they played tonight, and that’s important.”
After a scoreless first period, the Canucks appeared to get on the board first when defenceman Spencer Gover joined the rush and slid a loose puck home past Navs' goaltender Cory Houlder. But the goal was called off after the referee blew his whistle when he lost sight of the puck behind a sprawling Houlder; much to the chagrin of the Canucks’ faithful who felt the play was whistled down too early.
Following the called off goal, the momentum appeared to shift in favour of North Peace, who scored four straight, kicked off by another controversial goal that, this time, the ref allowed.
Dustin Long scored at 5:33 on the powerplay as Navs' and ‘Nucks players crowded Colten Anderson’s crease. Anderson felt he was interfered with and took his frustration out on the net, pushing it off its moorings towards the ref and drawing a ten-minute misconduct.
Fulton took the high road when asked about both calls going against the Canucks.
“The first two goals are what they are, they could have gone either way. He could of blown theirs down quicker and their coach would have been mad,” he said.
“It’s how he [referee] sees it. Unless he’s kicking the puck in the net you really can’t fault the guy. I might not agree with it. Sometimes I wish they would come and explain how they saw it so that you get a better idea. He doesn’t like to do that.”
When the net was safely anchored to the ice, Anderson was doing his best to keep the ‘Nucks close, but North Peace got to him in the second half of the period when Long scored his second and Ashton Rai and Jeff Tookey added markers to make it 4-0 after 40 minutes.
“He [Anderson] played really well. One goal tonight, maybe he could of fought a little harder for, or played a little different, but other than that the goals were inside the crease or tight inside and on the powerplay,” said Fulton of his rookie goaltender who was starting in just his eighth game of the season having fought injuries all year.
Anderson made 34 saves overall and was a key part to why the Canucks were even tied with North Peace after the first period.
“He definitely come out of his shorts a bit – he worked hard, made some big saves in the first period – he’s competitive,” added Fulton. “You wouldn’t want a goalie to not be competitive. You don’t want to see him push the net over on top of the referee – that’s not the reaction we are looking for. He’s a young kid, it’s his first year, and he’ll learn from that and knows that’s not acceptable.”
Christophe Lemire-Rondeau scored the ‘Navs fifth goal midway through the third, before Muise tipped home a Jared Crema point shot with less than two minutes left in regulation to foil Houlder’s shutout.
Fulton said the Canucks did a good job staying out of the box, but were overmatched by the league’s stingiest defence.
“Guys were battling and if you get penalties while you’re battling I’m OK with that. It’s stuff behind the play, or retaliation, that drives me a little insane. I thought they were battling penalties and I don’t mind killing those.”
The Navs', who have the lowest goals-against total (85) in the NWJHL, kept the Canucks to the outside, limiting any close looks.
“They play a good game. Defensively they are strong, they are always moving – never stagnant – and they wear you out,” said Fulton. “Getting to the net is hard work [against Navs']. We weren’t getting there all the time, but at least I was seeing the legs moving and guys trying to get there.”
“We were in this game, the scoreboard was a little lopsided but we were in the game,” he added. “We carried the play with them.”
The Canucks play their final home game of the regular season Wednesday versus the Fort St. John Huskies, before ending the year with a rematch against the Navigators Feb. 8 in North Peace.