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I Watched This Game: Canucks inch closer to clinching Pacific vs Oilers

In a crucial game for deciding the Pacific Division, the Canucks calmly cruised to a win over the Oilers.
The Vancouver Canucks completed the season sweep of the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night.

The Pacific Division was on the line Saturday night.

The Vancouver Canucks’ once-commanding lead in the Pacific had gradually eroding thanks tot he surging Edmonton Oilers, who entered Saturday’s game just three points back of the Canucks with a game in hand. An Oilers win in regulation would have left them in the driver’s seat, able to win the Pacific by winning out the rest of their games, no matter what the Canucks did.

A Canucks win in regulation, on the other hand, would put them in a position to clinch the division with just one more point in their remaining two games.

The Canucks had wiped the floor with the Oilers in their first three games but that was a long time ago, before the Oilers fired their head coach, Jay Woodcroft, replaced him with Kris Knoblauch, and got their act together. The Oilers are not the same team that lost those three early-season games to the Canucks. 

Of course, they were also quite literally not the same team, as Connor McDavid missed his third straight game with an injury. The Oilers are not quite the Oilers without McDavid.

On the other hand, the Canucks are not quite the Canucks without Thatcher Demko, who is expected to return from injury on Tuesday against the Calgary Flames.

It doesn’t really matter. When the not-quite-the-Canucks beat the not-quite-the-Oilers 3-1 on Saturday night, it completed the Canucks’ series sweep over the Oilers just as much as if both McDavid and Demko had been on the ice. The win puts the division title within reach, even if winning it isn’t really what this season has been all about.

“We knew this was a four-point swing,” said Casey DeSmith after the game. “That’s not the ultimate goal that we have for this season but that’s definitely something that we’ve been working towards and something we take pride in.”

“We’ve gotten this far — why not go get it?” said Tocchet earlier in the week. “But I don’t think it’s the end of the world either way. I’m not trying to take pressure off our team by saying that, it’s just we’ve worked hard to get to this position, why would you not work even harder to get it? I mean, it makes no sense. I think it’s important that we try to get it. If it happens, it should be a feather in the cap for the guys.”

The Canucks’ caps are awaiting that feather after I watched this game.

  • Tocchet shook up the lines looking for the right combination ahead of the playoffs, which meant reuniting one of their most effective lines in Pius Suter, J.T. Miller, and Brock Boeser and pairing the dynamic duo of Conor Garland and Dakota Joshua with Elias Lindholm. Unfortunately, that meant putting Ilya Mikheyev back with Elias Pettersson. It’s not that Mikheyev is bad — he had a good game, overall — it’s just that his hands still act as if Sersi had turned them to stone and he failed to convert on every chance his teammates created for him.
  • Lindholm and his new linemates were hard-matched against Leon Draisaitl’s line and kept them completely contained. Using Garland, Lindholm, and Joshua as a checking line should free up the Pettersson and Miller lines to focus on offence, in theory. In theory, communism works. In theory.
  • After two straight starts for Arturs Silovs, Casey DeSmith got back into the Canucks net. It’s understandable that they turned back to the veteran for a big game: Silovs gave up some soft goals early in his starts, even if he recovered after. Meanwhile, DeSmith has been very good in a backup role this season, so it was reasonable to think he might be better after a two-game break.
  • DeSmith was sharper than an obsidian blade early in the game, which was essential to the Canucks surviving the Oilers’ aggressive start. The Canucks didn’t get a shot on goal for the first seven minutes but DeSmith stopped all 13 shots he faced in the first period. He earned his post-game goalie hug from Thatcher Demko.
  • Sorry, Jeremy Swayman. Demko only hugs one goaltender.
  • “Our last five in the first gave us confidence, then I thought we were better in the second,” said Tocchet. “I would credit that first seven minutes to Casey. There were some high tips they had that if they go in, maybe it’s a different game.”
  • The Canucks turned the momentum late in the first period, hemming the Oilers in with a series of strong shifts but it seemed like neither team was going to crack the goose eggs on the scoreboard until the final minute. That’s when Miller picked up a loose puck after an Ian Cole hit and played a quick up to Nikita Zadorov, who sent Sam Lafferty up the right wing. With Miller cutting to the net to drive the defence back, Lafferty had all the room he needed to rip the puck past Stuart Skinner’s blocker to get an omelet started.
  • This was such a smart forecheck by Lindholm. Instead of just crashing in, Lindholm reads the path of the puck and perfectly times both a stick lift and getting his body between Mattias Ekholm and the puck. It was an equally smart play by Garland to read that Lindholm was going to win the puck and dart in front of the net. While Garland didn’t convert on the chance — he really could use Phil Di Giuseppe’s shot — there’s definitely the potential for some chemistry there. Garland finished the game with a game-high seven shots on goal. 
  • Pius Suter extended the Canucks’ lead on a quick regroup in the neutral zone by Tyler Myers, who snagged an airborne puck and immediately attacked up ice. Spotting Suter driving to the net, Myers threw a hard pass at Suter’s stick that suited Suter superbly, allowing him to obtusely angle the puck over Skinner’s right pad to give the Canucks a 2-0 lead. 
  • The Oilers got on the board before the end of the second. Filip Hronek seemingly had body position to be first to a loose puck in the defensive zone but he allowed Sam Carrick to skate right around him — or, technically, left around him. Carrick moved the puck to Darnell Nurse at the point and his shot was tipped by both Connor Brown and Evander Kane in front of DeSmith. 
  • That’s all the Oilers would get, as the Canucks played effective shutdown hockey the rest of the way to protect the one-goal lead. The Canucks’ defensive structure gave the Oilers somewhere between jack and squat. As much as Canucks fans might be concerned about certain playoff matchups, the Canucks are going to be a nightmare in the postseason when they get a lead and should be causing concern for fans of other teams.
  • “We’ve got some huge guys and then we have the little water bug, Huggy. Obviously, probably going to win the Norris, at least I think he should,” said DeSmith. “The rest of the guys, they really take care of the front of the net, they’re good puck-movers, good skaters — even though they’re big guys — so I can’t say enough about the D corps, just the whole year.”
  • Quinn “Water Bug” Hughes is so good that sometimes it’s easy to overlook his little moments of brilliance. This zone exit from the second period is ridiculous: he has two Oilers forecheckers all over him but he still kicks the puck behind his own leg up to his stick, establishes body position and is strong enough on his stick to hold off a stick lift, and backhands a pass up to Dakota Joshua. 
  • One neat “trend” from this game, if you can call it that, was the Canucks intentionally icing the puck — banking the puck off the end boards so a teammate could race onto it. They did it twice in this game, leading to great chances for Brock Boeser and Pius Suter even though it didn’t lead to a goal. The Canucks don’t attack much off the rush overall but it’s nice to have that tactic in their back pocket.
  • Joshua added some insurance when the Oilers picked the exact wrong time to pull Skinner for the extra attacker. Just as Skinner bolted for the bench, Joshua made a well-timed stick check to deflect a shot by Corey Perry. Garland retrieved the puck, passed it up to Lindholm, and he relayed it to Joshua to shoot it into the empty net.
  • Two more games before the playoffs, folks. Just two more games.