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I Watched This Game: Another multi-goal lead bites the dust for Canucks in Toronto

Spencer Martin's best efforts couldn't keep the Toronto Maple Leafs from storming back after the Vancouver Canucks took a 2-0 lead.
The Vancouver Canucks came up short against the Toronto Maple Leafs, losing 3-2 after taking a 2-0 lead in the first period. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

The streak is over.

Spencer Martin earned at least one point in his first ten starts with the Vancouver Canucks, refusing to lose in regulation. On Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Martin did everything he could to keep that streak alive, but to no avail.

At least the Canucks kept one trend going, adding another tally in the “giving up a multi-goal lead” column. The Canucks took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission and, at this point, it seemed almost inevitable that the lead would disappear. Defending the lead has been such a massive issue, even in their few wins, that you have to assume the probability of them giving up that lead is an impossible-to-dismiss invasive thought.

Confidence has a major impact on sports, particularly a fast-paced sport like hockey, where even a moment’s hesitation or a pinch of self-doubt can make a massive difference. At this point, giving up the lead might be a self-fulfilling prophecy — afraid to make the crucial mistake that costs your team a goal inevitably leading to making that crucial mistake.

It certainly wasn’t Martin’s fault. One goal was a wide-open scoring chance on the power play from Auston Matthews, arguably the best goalscorer of his generation. Another came off a wild scrum in which he made a series of great saves, only to have a Leafs forward left alone at the backdoor for a tap-in. The third came off a complete defensive breakdown in front of him and a bad-luck bounce off the boards.

Along the way, Martin made several fantastic saves that had the potential to be game-changers — the type of saves that you could point to as the turning point in the game if the Canucks responded by pushing back and scoring a goal or two of their own. But that pushback never came and all those saves will be lost in time, like tears in rain.  

And so ends one of the brief, fleeting silver linings of this poison gas cloud of a Canucks season. Martin is no longer undefeated in regulation as a Canuck. 

It was a foolish belief that it could last but what is sports fandom about if not a series of foolish beliefs? And the one over-arching belief that one day a series of those foolish beliefs will come true and the team in which you’ve placed all of your foolish beliefs hoists the championship trophy — the Larry O’Brien, the Vince Lombardi, the Stanley Cup — and you can throw your foolish belief in the faces of everyone else who held a slightly different foolish belief and declare, “See? I was right all along!”

Unfortunately, believing in the Canucks seemed extra foolish when I watched this game.

  • Martin getting the start for a marquee game on Hockey Night in Canada says something, at least: the Canucks coaching staff sees Martin as a better bet to get a win than Thatcher Demko right now.
  • The Canucks got on the board first with a goal from — who else? — Bo Horvat, giving him 13 goals in 15 games as he tries to reel in Connor McDavid, who has 15 goals, for the league lead. Horvat is on pace for 71 goals at this point, which is ridiculous and definitely not going to happen — I think he’ll score two fewer than that.
  • Conor Garland didn’t get an assist on the goal but he played a major role, winning a battle down low against two Leafs to get the puck to Vasily Podkolzin. He relayed the puck to Luke Schenn, who sent a puck toward the net where Horvat tipped it, sending it bouncing past Erik Källgren into the net like a runaway truck tire into a hotel conference room.  
  • J.T. Miller extended the lead on the power play, zipping a shot into the far corner while Källgren looked around the other side of Brock Boeser as he screened in front. It was a perfect combination of screen and shot, like pressing PrtScn, Cmd-Shift-3, or the side and Home buttons simultaneously.
  • That was the high point for Miller and it was, like a Calvin and Hobbes wagon-based comic strip, all downhill from there. He was on the ice for all three Leafs goals after that and didn’t look particularly good on any of them. He’s now been on the ice for 25 goals against at all strengths, which is the highest on the Canucks and behind only the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl and Zach Hyman for the most of any NHL forward this season.
  • The comeback didn’t take long. Less than two minutes into the second period, on a Leafs power play, Tyler Myers lost a battle along the boards. Unfortunately, the entire Canucks’ penalty kill had overloaded that side of the ice without actually helping Myers in the battle, with Miller floating over instead of staying more central. That left Auston Matthews all alone off a Marner pass and he ripped the puck past Martin to make it 2-1.
  • To be fair to Miller, I can’t comprehend what in the world Oliver Ekman-Larsson was thinking on the goal. I don’t know why the veteran of 863 NHL games thought it was a good idea to loop below the goal line in the blindly optimistic hope that Myers would play the puck behind the net when he didn’t even have possession yet, nor do I know why he thought a wide loop vaguely in the direction of the puck was his best defensive option in that situation. I am just a lowly sportswriter, not a telepath.
  • A few minutes later, it was 2-2. After a wild scrum in the Canucks crease, things when higgledy-piggledy and the trio of Miller, Riley Stillman, and Ethan Bear never quite got their bearings again. Bear looked particularly lost on the play, as he got caught puck-watching and never picked up Pierre Engvall at the backdoor, who Calle Jarnkrok eventually found for the tap-in goal.
  • Miller may not have looked great on the first two goals against but he was a disaster defensively on the 3-0 goal. He wasn’t the only one, as the Leafs’ movement about the zone caused some confusion, but it was exacerbated by Miller not once shoulder-checking to pick up the open man in front of the net. Instead, he locked his eyes on the puck and apparently locked his knees too, failing to take even a single stride toward his check or the loose puck.
  • Maybe I’m being too harsh, but this legitimately made me angry. Miller is on Nylander at the start of the play, but then Schenn takes over, at which point Miller has to look around and find someone else to check, namely Engvall in front. He never does and it’s Engvall who tips Morgan Rielly’s shot that goes off the endboards to Jordie Benn at the side of the net.
  • There are other mistakes: Brock Boeser should have stayed with Rielly, Ilya Mikheyev shouldn’t have left Benn to charge out at Rielly, and Schenn should have gotten back to the front of the net sooner. But watch Miller — he’s the closest one to Benn, but he just stands there, feet completely still. That’s a desperation situation and Miller doesn’t show any desperation whatsoever. It’s depressing to watch.
  • It’s all the more frustrating because Miller himself advocated to go back to centre, when he seems to lack the ability to play the type of strong defensive game a centre needs to play. If that’s how he’s going to play defensively, get him back on the wing immediately.
  • Meanwhile, Elias Pettersson was playing his heart out defensively all game. This battle down low against David Kampf is exactly the type of hard-working defence you need out of your top centre. 
  • And yet, Miller got more ice time in this game than Pettersson. If anyone else checked out defensively like Miller did, they’d be stapled to the bench. But the Canucks needed a goal, so Miller got more ice time in the third than he did in either of the first two periods. Maybe Jim Rutherford was right to call out the lack of accountability in a public forum but, then again, he and Patrik Allvin are the ones that re-signed Miller in the first place. 
  • This was a rough game for the defence pairing of Ekman-Larsson and Myers. Even though they managed to avoid being on the ice for a single goal against at 5-on-5, they repeatedly gave up grade-A scoring chances as Leafs forwards slipped in behind them, with Martin bailing them out each time. It happened all game, but this moment in the third period when Myers inexplicably crossed to Ekman-Larsson’s side of the ice to attack the puck-carrier, leaving Auston freaking Matthews wide open behind him, takes the cake.
  • The Canucks had a few chances to tie the game in the third period — Boeser came closest with a snap shot that went off the underside of the crossbar — but even though the Canucks had more shots on goal thanks to a couple of power plays, the Leafs had the better possession and the more dangerous chances. Only Martin kept it close.
  • The Maple Leafs’ pre-game tribute to Börje Salming was pitch perfect. The legendary defenceman and pioneering Swede was diagnosed with ALS earlier this year and is no longer able to speak but was able to take the ice to drop the puck for the ceremonial faceoff. In a nice touch, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe had six Swedes on the ice for the opening faceoff.


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