Through two periods, the Canucks were all over the Leafs. They dominated the first 40 minutes in almost every facet of the game. Their breakout was crisp and clean, they went in hard on the forecheck and won the puck, and their defensive structure was so tight you could bounce a quarter off it.
It didn’t matter in the slightest.
After the Canucks out-shot the Leafs 27-to-7 in the first two periods, the score was still tied 1-1. Then the Leafs came out in the third period and decided it was time to win the game.
There could be no clearer illustration of the chasm of quality that exists between the two teams. The Canucks played some of their best hockey of the season and could only manage a stalemate on the scoreboard. The Leafs coasted for two periods, then flipped a switch, scored two goals in 11 seconds, and won the game.
As you might expect, the Canucks talked about their performance being a step in the right direction and it really was. They were legitimately the better team for most of the game and can take some lessons away from it and apply them to future games. The issue is that the team needs more than lessons; they need wins.
“We were really good, probably our best game all year,” said Quinn Hughes. “Just making plays, playing confident, we were really good. We were playing with life. It sucks that we lost this one, but we’re playing every other day, so we can’t dwell on it too much.”
For a team that’s 6-10-0 and only 3-10-0 against teams not named after politicians, they have to focus on the positives. If they don’t, they’ll get washed away in the negatives, because there have been just too many of them this season.
“We played with a lot of urgency tonight. I think that looked more like the team we want to be,” said head coach Travis Green. “I don’t know if we could have played any better in the first two periods, probably deserved to be up more than it being a tied game, but sometimes when it’s not going your way, that happens.”
The Leafs are a team that can afford a couple of bad periods, because they have the depth of talent to weather the storm and keep the game tight. The Canucks are a team that can’t afford to have a couple of bad shifts at this point.
So, as much as the Canucks played better, they need to be better still if they want to turn this season around.
Elias Pettersson summed it up at the end of his media availability: “It was a good game, but still not good enough. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
Unlike Pettersson, I will talk about this game some more. That’s what I committed to doing when I watched this game.
- The Canucks shook up the lineup between Saturday and Monday. Tyler Motte went on the injured reserve and will be out “For a while,” said Green. “He won’t be back in the next week or so, that’s for sure.” Loui Eriksson came out of the lineup as well, and in their place came Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette.
- The Leafs, meanwhile, dressed 11 forwards and 7 defencemen. On purpose. It’s a decision head coach Sheldon Keefe said he “regretted” when the game unfolded as it did.
- Quinn Hughes talked about bad bounces biting the Canucks defensively after the game and the opening goal is a good example. A Mitch Marner shot from the point was blocked by Nate Schmidt in front and he tried to kick the puck out of danger. Instead, he kicked it right to Morgan “Danger” Reilly, who had jumped down from the point, and he beat Braden Holtby.
- There was a scary moment for Nils Höglander in the first period when a Jordie Benn shot took off and hit him right in the visor, causing a pressure cut above his eye that bled like he was in a Kurosawa film. Fortunately, he got stitched up and returned to the game, but for a moment he looked like he was cosplaying as Wilson from Castaway.
- The Canucks tied the game on the power play in the second period thanks to a fantastic play by Brock Boeser to keep the puck in at the blue line, a lovely pass from Quinn Hughes, and an absolute dart thrown into the double-12 by Elias Pettersson. The Canucks may be struggling at even-strength this season, but the power play is starting to click: they now have power play goals in four-straight games.
- Pettersson is starting to look like the Pettersson of old, or of young since he's still just 22 years old. Not only does he have 9 points in his last 8 games, but he’s starting to make those little confident moves that give him more space with the puck to make plays, like this little stutter step on Justin Holl. He opened up hiis skates for just a moment, and Holl bit. That created the space to set up J.T. Miller for a chance, but Auston Matthews came back to break it up.
- The Lotto Line of Miller, Pettersson, and Boeser had one of their strongest possession games: shot attempts were 9-2 for the Canucks when they were on the ice together and scoring chances were 3-0. That’s how the Canucks will need them to play for the rest of the season.
- The Canucks had a chance to take the lead at the end of the second period on the power play when Nate Schmidt drilled a slap shot that Brandon Sutter tipped in front. At least, Sutter thought it was a great chance: the cameras caught him staring at Schmidt in dumbstruck shock as the period ended.
- "PP shift right before that, Schmidt shot it at me for a high tip and i tipped it and it just hit Andersen's glove without him seeing it," said Sutter to Sportsnet's Dan Murphy. "Nate had the same look on his face. Couldn’t believe it didn’t go in.”
- Olli Juolevi got back in the lineup and had a strong game. I particularly liked this play on Alex Kerfoot, giving him no room to cut in off the rush and halting him in his tracks like a fake tunnel painted on a cliff face.
- “That was Olli’s best game of the year,” said Green. “It’s funny when a young guy sits out and he gets a chance to just watch the game, work on certain things in practice, and, really, watching it from above and watching the things that we’ve been talking about with him, you can see him apply it tonight.”
- Bailey and Gaudette also had a strong game, using their speed to get in on the forecheck while their centre, Brandon Sutter, acted as a safety valve. They were flying all game and shot attempts were 12-3 for the Canucks when that line was together at 5-on-5. Gaudette led the Canucks with 9 shot attempts and 5 shots on goal.
- “I thought Bailey’s speed was evident tonight,” said Green. “He’s a big body, I liked his game. I thought Gaudette gave us a good game as well tonight, much more like the Gaudette of old that we were accustomed to seeing.”
- A young player that didn’t impress? Jake Virtanen. He wasn’t horrible, by any means, but the mental lapses that keep knocking him out of the lineup were once again evident. Like Lit, he is his own worst enemy.
- Virtanen had one eye-catchingly horrible shift in the third period where he double-clutched on a pass in the neutral zone that put Nate Schmidt under pressure leading to a giveaway, then came back defensively and dealt with a puck in front in the most casual way possible by trying to cut across the top of his own crease on the backhand. He ran directly into John Tavares, leading to a mad scramble in front and an Antoine Roussel penalty as he cleared out Wiilliam Nylander with a hefty crosscheck.
- Virtanen was on the ice for the game-winning goal, but it wasn’t his fault. The blame lies primarily with Jay Beagle, who decided to leave Auston Matthews, one of the most dangerous goalscorers in the NHL, wide open in the high slot while he went puck-chasing. The result was inevitable: Matthews hammered a one-timer past Holtby.
- 11 seconds later, the game was out of reach. Hughes carried the puck back in his own zone and tried to cut up the boards instead of making the safer pass behind the net. Ilya Mikheyev cut him off, stole the puck, and set up Kerfoot in front to make it 3-1.
- “I think I just felt the pressure wrong,” said Hughes. “I thought that he would be reading that I was going behind the net and so I tried to spin and he read it, he was right there on me. An unfortunate play… I make that play a hundred times and it pretty much always works for me, so that’s just luck of the draw right now, that’s just how things are going.”
- Honestly, Hughes had a great game. Shots on goal were 13-to-4 for the Canucks when he was on the ice at 5-on-5 and he led the Canucks with 24:10 in ice time. He played nearly mistake-free hockey, but that one mistake ended up in the back of the net.
- “I thought I was really good defensively tonight,” said Hughes. “I don’t know if I even had that many shifts in the D-zone we were playing so well and our breakouts, me and Benner’s breakouts, were clean. We were pretty good in the offensive zone and neutral zone, so we didn’t spend too much time in the D-zone. I thought I was really solid tonight, probably my best game and then that third goal’s unfortunate, but what are you going to do?”
- The road trip is finally over. It went horribly. Now the Canucks have 7 of their next 8 games at home, with no back-to-backs for the rest of the month. If ever there was a time to get the season back on track, it's now.