There has just been one nagging question about the Canucks’ hot start: their schedule.
Through their first 14 games of the season, the Canucks faced just four teams that made the playoffs last season. While they’ve dominated some of the lesser lights in the NHL this season, there has been that one issue just hanging around annoyingly like Navi in Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
How will the Canucks handle the tougher parts of the schedule? Will the game that’s been so effective against the likes of the Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings still work against the teams that are true Stanley Cup contenders?
Despite the loss to the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday, the answer appears to be unequivocally yes.
The Blues are not just the defending Stanley Cup champions; they’re one of the best teams in the NHL this season. They’ve lost just three games in regulation all season and came into Vancouver on a four-game winning streak. They’re getting scoring throughout their lineup, but also have legitimate stars at the top, like Brayden Schenn, whose 10 goals this season is good for sixth in the NHL.
The Canucks didn’t just hang with the Blues; for most of the game, they significantly outplayed them. They took the physical play of the Blues and didn’t retaliate, but out-worked them at their own game, winning puck battles and creating great scoring chances off turnovers.
There was just one problem: they couldn’t put the puck past Jordan Binnington. The Blues’ goaltender seemed nigh-unbeatable, making save after save after save. They couldn’t beat him low, they couldn’t beat him high, and they couldn’t jam the puck by him. Like Tommy Tutone had Jenny’s, Binnington seemed to have the Canucks’ number.
Fortunately for the Canucks, Quinn Hughes’ number is unlisted. The rookie defenceman snagged a point from the Blues that the Canucks deserved when I watched this game.
- It was 70’s night at Rogers Arena, with the team nodding to the first decade of the Canucks in the NHL. That meant warming up in classic 70’s jerseys, some 70’s music, and nods to Canucks greats from that decade. It also meant a wonderfully cheezy Brady Bunch parody featuring eight Canucks that had no idea where they were supposed to look. I was not the least bit surprised to find out Clay Imoo and Marie Hui were involved.
- Like believing that you’re due to win the lottery, the Lotto Line was extremely dangerous. Elias Pettersson led the way with six shots on goal, but their best chance came from Miller halfway through the first period: he capped off a shift that featured a bank pass off the boards to himself by taking a Pettersson feed and going in alone on Binnington, but he couldn’t sneak the puck five-hole.
- We saw the two sides of Tyler Myers in this game. He saved a puck off the goal line in the first period to keep the score knotted at 0-0; he and Alex Edler did a great job shutting down the Ryan O’Reilly line; he provided some physicality down low, including a big hit on Vince Dunn. On the other hand, he had an egregious turnover late in the third period and was part of a Keystone Kops routine in overtime that led to the game-winning goal. Thanos would appreciate the perfect balance.
- The shots were 12-6 for the Canucks after the first period, but they didn’t have a goal to show for it, giving off strong vibes of it being “one of those games.” Some games you do everything right and you just can’t score a goal. What’s encouraging about these Canucks is that even when they have “one of those games,” they still manage to get a point out of it.
- The Blues opened the scoring in the second period off a couple Jordie Benn errors. With space to make a play, Benn made a mistake in space, which is the worst place to make a mistake. After turning the puck over along the boards, an error in communication meant Benn’s man, Tyler Bozak, was all alone in front. “I done boofed it,” Benn probably said as he realized he got caught puck-watching.
- That’s the only goal the Blues managed in regulation, which is a credit to the Canucks considering they had 15 goals in their last four games. Jacob Markstrom was rock solid, as opposed to water liquid or helium gas. Those are two very impractical states for stopping pucks.
- The Canucks gave as good as they got when it came to the physical side of the game, as even Pettersson was throwing hits. The hit of the game, however, was Jay Beagle on Vince Dunn. Beagle kept the puck in at the blue line with some hustle, then chipped the puck deep and finished his check, upending Dunn like a bottle of ketchup that you swear isn’t empty.
- Jake Virtanen seemed to thrive in the heavier game and had one of his best performances of the season, with three hits and five shots on goal. The closest he came to triggering shotguns around the province, however, came in the third period when he blasted a laser just past Binnington, but, like one particular Shotgun Jake fan, found iron.
- “It felt like a playoff game and yeah, it was tough,” said Virtanen. “I felt like I had a lot of space tonight and I think it was just from my speed and having my head up and making plays. Each and every game I'm getting a lot more confident and feeling a lot better.”
- J.T. Miller certainly didn’t back down from the physicality, finishing with a game-high eight hits, as he was all over the Blues to create turnovers and opportunities for his line. Often, a high number of hits means you didn’t have the puck enough, but that wasn’t the case for Miller: his line had the best corsi percentage among Canucks forwards in this game, as they spent most of it in the offensive zone.
- Another player who seemed to thrive in the heavier game was Josh Leivo, who was once again beastly in puck battles. He created a chance for Beagle after winning two puck battles along the boards and turned a one-on-one situation into a spin-o-rama scoring chance. I’m partial, however, to a play he made along the boards in the final minutes of regulation, when he fought off Justin Faulk with one hand on his stick, then threw his entire body into a pass to send Bo Horvat in for a chance.
- The biggest reason the Canucks didn’t win this game? The power play stunk like a rafflesia arnoldii. They had four power play opportunities, but struggled to gain the zone and get set up. When they did, the Blues penalty kill overloaded aggressively on the puck side, smothering the power play, which couldn’t move the puck quickly enough to escape pressure and take advantage of any openings created by the overload.
- “I think the biggest thing for us is our power play right now,” said Horvat. I think we’ve got to be better. Capitalizing on opportunities and capitalizing on power plays, that's what's going to win you hockey games.”
- The Canucks finally solved Binnington with a little luck and a little Quinn Hughes, but it stemmed from Miller and Leivo winning puck battles. Miller kept possession along the boards, while Leivo snaked out the puck and fed it back to Hughes at the point. Hughes slapped the rolling puck towards the net and it juke and jived past both Leivo and Pettersson screening in front before going over Binnington’s shoulder: the goaltender never saw it.
- I confirmed with Hughes after the game that he’d seen D2: The Mighty Ducks — “Oh yeah, I could probably quote the entire thing” — so, while I can’t confirm he shouted “It’s knucklepuck time!” prior to his goal, I like to think he did.
- “I tried to drill it, but third period ice isn't as good as it usually is in the first or second and it was bouncing,” said Hughes. “A winger was coming at me so I just had to make a play quickly.”
- That got the game to overtime, where the Blues won in bizarre fashion. Horvat set up Myers off the rush, but the defenceman missed the net on the far side, sending the puck ringing around the boards and out of the zone. That was bad enough, but then Myers blew a tire and wiped out Miller below the Blues’ goal line. Horvat was trapped as well, giving the Blues the extremely rare 3-on-0.
- Markstrom was angry he allowed the game-winning goal, breaking his stick against the post, but what could he do? He had no chance to stop a 3-on-0, particularly since the Blues didn’t have anyone in hot pursuit and could take their time, toying with Markstrom like cats with a mouse. Of course they scored: their teammates wouldn’t have let them on the plane to Edmonton if they didn’t.
- Yeah, I’m not blaming Markstrom on this one.
- Travis Green loved that game, not necessarily because it was low-scoring, but because he appreciates a good challenge. “That was a fun game to coach,” he said. “There was a lot of intensity in the game, that was great hockey.”
- “I think our whole team really stepped up tonight, that was a hard game,” said Green. “I think we might have had the most hits we've had all season tonight not by design, it’s just that was the type of game it was. You like to see your team playing different types of games as you go along and definitely, when you get into games in the playoffs, they're a lot more physical and that was a good test for our group tonight.”