VANCOUVER – Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen are only thinking about playing for the Vancouver Canucks this season.
With a key injury up front, the door looks to be wide open.
The rookie forwards played their first pre-season games with the Canucks in Tuesday’s 4-0 pre-season loss to the San Jose Sharks, hours after it was announced veteran winger Chris Higgins will miss at least three weeks with a broken foot.
McCann had two good chances on San Jose goalie Martin Jones in the second period, while Virtanen demonstrated the physical side to his game.
The 19-year-olds said afterwards that while Higgins’ injury that resulted from a shot block in Monday’s 1-0 exhibition win over the Sharks was unfortunate, it doesn’t change their focus.
“I’m not going to worry about that,” said Virtanen. “I’m just going to play my game. If I get to stay, that’s what I hope for. I want to be here this year, nowhere else.”
Added McCann: “We’re all here to earn a spot on the team and we’re going to have to work to do it.”
Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins, who was behind the bench in the first period after undergoing hip surgery earlier this month, said seeing Higgins go down was tough.
“He worked real hard so it’s disappointing for him,” he said. “It’s a loss, but it gives other guys chances in camp.”
First-round picks in 2014, Virtanen and McCann both missed training camp last season and would have to be returned to junior if they don’t stick in the NHL. The pair are among a group of young forwards – Brendan Gaunce is another – hoping to crack the lineup as the Canucks continue to retool their roster on the fly.
“I was really nervous. It wasn’t very hard to get up for this game,” said McCann. “I felt like I did pretty good, but it would have been nice to get the win as a team.”
Jones stopped 30 shots for San Jose, while Brent Burns and Tomas Hertl each had a goal and assist. Paul Martin and Nikolay Goldobin also scored for the Sharks.
Ryan Miller started and made seven saves for the Canucks before being replaced midway through the second period by Joe Cannata, who finished with 11 stops.
The Canucks and Sharks went with rosters that mixed youth with experience, with Henrik and Daniel Sedin among the NHL veterans who suited up for Vancouver, while San Jose countered with the likes of Burns, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture.
Martin opened the scoring 2:41 into the first, beating Miller with a shot through traffic.
The Canucks couldn’t convert on two power plays later in the period, and Burns made it 2-0 with 2:44 left on another shot that found its way through a screen.
Jones – a former backup goalie with the Los Angeles Kings who was traded twice this off-season – made a nice stop on McCann’s tipped effort with about eight minutes left in the second before denying another chance with a toe save moments later.
San Jose made it 3-0 at 9:25 of the third on the power play when Matt Tennyson’s one-timer from the top of the faceoff circle went off Hertl in front and past Cannata. Goldobin then rounded out the scoring on another man advantage at 12:37.
“All in all I thought all the young guys played pretty good,” said Desjardins. “I wasn’t disappointed in any of their efforts. I didn’t think any of them looked out of place.”
Notes: Despite the 4-0 final, the teams played five minutes of 3-on-3 overtime period to get accustomed to the new format implemented for this season, but neither scored… Vancouver’s next pre-season game is Friday in Calgary.