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I Watched This Game: Canucks can't hold a 3-0 lead against the Oilers

The Canucks lost the special teams battle 4-1 to start the season on a sour note.
The Vancouver Canucks fell 5-3 to the Edmonton Oilers in their season opener on Wednesday night. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

One of the biggest problems for the Vancouver Canucks last season was poor starts. It was true of individual games and of the season as a whole — they got into a hole early, worked hard to battle back, but came up just short in the end.

In game one of the 2022-23 season, the Canucks flipped the script.

The Canucks got off to an incredibly fast start — in fact, Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller scored the fastest two goals to start a season in Canucks history, giving the Canucks a 2-0 lead over the Edmonton Oilers less than three minutes into the game. 

By the time Andrei Kuzmenko scored his first career NHL goal on a second-period power play, it looked like the Canucks were going to cruise to an easy win to kick off the season. Shots on goal were 18-to-9 for the Canucks, the score was 3-0, and Thatcher Demko was in net — what could go wrong?

Turns out, pretty much everything could go wrong.

The flipped script had the Oilers battling back to tie the game, then take the lead late in the third period. The only part of the script that wasn’t flipped was the part where the Canucks came up short. Maybe the Canucks need to get in touch with the film industry in Hollywood North and hire a script doctor to tighten up their Third Act.

“We played outstanding in the first half of the game,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau. “If you give teams too many chances to come back, they’re going to come back.”

Some of the reasons why the Canucks gave up five unanswered goals to lose 5-3 were not entirely in their control — more on that later — but the simple truth is that they had the game in their hands and they couldn’t close it out. 

It’s just one game, of course. While they all count in the final standings, the Canucks have plenty of time to lick their wounds, learn a few lessons from what went wrong, and take comfort in what went right. It’s not the ideal way to start the season but what matters for the Canucks is where they go from here.

Where I went from there was to my computer to write the I Watched This Game after I watched this game.

  • There was a plethora of penalties in this game, so it isn’t surprising that special teams helped decide the game. The Canucks went 1-for-9 on the power play and gave up a shorthanded goal — the Oilers went 3-for-4. All of the antonyms for “special” don’t seem adequate to the task: “ordinary teams” or “undistinguished teams” don’t quite cut it.
  • Let’s go back to the good times, when Elias Pettersson looked like he was sending a message to the rest of the NHL. Pettersson jumped a passing lane on the Oilers breakout to pick off a Dylan Holloway pass, then used the threat of a pass to Nils Höglander to back off the defence and walk in alone on goaltender Jack Campbell and tuck the puck around him and in — like the puck was a hyper six-year-old, it took a little extra effort to tuck in, but Pettersson stuck with it.
  • Less than a minute later, J.T. Miller made it 2-0. It started with a strong play on the boards by Quinn Hughes to win the puck from Leon Draisaitl, starting a 3-on-2 rush the other way. With Brock Boeser driving the middle lane, Miller had a little bit of room to work with and, like a tiny home designer, he made the most of it, firing a wrist shot into the top shelf, which also doubles as a table when you fold it down off the wall.
  • Pettersson’s line with Höglander and Kuzmenko was dominant at 5-on-5, with the Canucks out-attempting the Oilers 14-to-3 when they were on the ice together, while shots on goal were 9-to-1. Considering the big question for Kuzmenko is how he would handle himself at even strength, we’ll call this a win for his first game.
  • Höglander helped tilt the ice for his linemates but there was some indecisiveness in what we would call the “final third” in soccer — the final step of setting up and finishing chances. Höglander had a golden opportunity to make it 3-0 midway through the first on a superb pass by Pettersson but the puck went off the heel of his stick and into the corner. Given how much they dominated possession, Höglander should stick with the line for now, but he might have a tough time keeping it when Ilya Mikheyev returns from injury if he can’t pop a few pucks in the net.
  • The virtual ads on the boards are awful and Sportsnet should get rid of them immediately. They won’t, of course, because they’ve already sold the adspace. I wonder how the companies who paid for the actual, physical ads on the boards that are getting covered up by these “augmented reality” ads feel about it.
@rod_oracheski The NHL desperately wants to increase ad revenue by chasing epileptics away from watching the game apparently. #nhl #hockey #advertising #fail #Oilers #LetsGoOilers ♬ original sound - Rod Oracheski
  • This late hit by Darnell Nurse on Kyle Burroughs was utter garbage. Burroughs had already been hit by Evander Kane, the puck was long gone, and the horn was about to sound to signal the end of the first period, so pretty much everyone had stopped skating. It was a gutless hit and Nurse deserved more than the two-minute penalty he received.
  • At least the Canucks scored on the subsequent power play. Kuzmenko got his first career NHL goal by darting to the net when no one but Miller was paying attention, with Kuzmenko sending a morse code message with his beaver-tailing stick requesting a pass. Beaver-tailing is a universal language, so nothing was lost in translation as Miller fired a hard pass onto Kuzmenko’s tape for the tap-in goal.
  • The game turned on a missed penalty. On the penalty kill, Hughes got hit hard in the face by Evander Kane’s stick and he fell to the ice, bleeding from his nose. With Hughes down and clutching his face, the 5-on-4 suddenly turned into a 5-on-3. As a dazed Hughes tried to get back into the play, Leon Draisaitl scored to make it 3-1.
  • If the referees get that call right, not only do the Oilers not score, they’re also taken off the power play. Hughes was bleeding, so it would be a double minor, meaning the Canucks would be on the power play when their own penalty expired. In addition, Hughes missed eight minutes of game time getting repairs. It was the PITB Transformative Moment of the game, which is legally distinct from “TSN Turning Point.” 
  • Even though the blown call was a big moment, it didn’t cost the Canucks the game. The Canucks still had a two-goal lead and had lots of chances to extend their lead with breakaways, chances from the slot, and more power plays, but Campbell kept the score close until McDavid and Draisaitl could do their thing, which is not a euphemism, please don’t ask if it’s a euphemism.
  • The Oilers second goal came off a fantastic passing sequence on the power play, capped off by a frankly unfair pass by Draisaitl from the slot to a wide-open McDavid on the right side. Most goals come off mistakes made by the other team but that one was just pure execution. 
  • The real killer was the shorthanded goal that tied the game 3-3. Elias Pettersson’s pass to Bo Horvat was picked off and Horvat made it ten times worse by inexplicably spinning out of a battle for the puck. If he had battled and backchecked, it could have just been a 3-on-2 — instead, it was a 3-on-1 and Draisaitl put the puck right in Nurse’s wheelhouse, giving a lunging Demko no chance.
  • No matter his renewed commitment to being harder to play against in the defensive zone, J.T. Miller should not be the Canucks’ match-up centre. Horvat with strong two-way wingers in Connor Garland and Vasily Podkolzin would be a better choice or Pettersson would make more sense with his Datsyukian attention to detail defensively. When Horvat or Pettersson were on the ice against McDavid at 5-on-5, the Canucks out-shot the Oilers. When Miller was against McDavid, the Oilers out-shot — and out-scored — the Canucks.
  • The game-winning goal was a disasterpiece of defending and the blame can be shared between the defence and the forwards. McDavid and Zach Hyman brought the puck into the zone, then Hyman drove into the middle of the ice. Hughes chased Hyman, while Tanner Pearson stopped moving his feet, leaving McDavid all alone. Hyman slipped the puck to McDavid and Luke Schenn went fishing for the puck instead of playing the body. That gave McDavid a chance to bury his own rebound, with a coasting Miller arriving a split second too late to check his stick. 
  • Kudos to Boudreau for aggressively pulling Demko for the extra attacker when the Canucks got a late power play, going with five forwards and one defenceman — Hughes, natch — to push for the tying goal. It was the right call and might have paid off if that extra attacker, Boeser, didn’t accidentally take the Canucks off the power play with an errant high stick. Sigh.
  • Just to rub it in, McDavid scored into the empty net for a hat trick. It was a four-point night for McDavid and he wasn’t even particularly good by his standards. This is just what McDavid does. McDavid is OP, pls nerf. 
  • Hopefully this won't be a pattern for the Canucks — some decent offensive firepower but a defence that is only “certainly adequate if it’s healthy” that forces them to out-score their defensive troubles. Fortunately, there are very few Draisaitls and McDavids on the other teams in the NHL.