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I Watched This Game: Canucks claw their way out of 4-1 hell but succumb to Devils in overtime

The Canucks gave up three goals in less than a minute but mounted a comeback to force overtime.
The Vancouver Canucks couldn't quite complete the comeback against the New Jersey Devils in first game since trading Bo Horvat. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

“Coach, the NHL is an 85% league.”

That was Martin St. Louis to Guy Boucher when he first started coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning back in the 2010-11 season. It’s a story he’s told several times, but always in French, so it’s one I wasn’t aware of until former Toronto Maple Leafs analyst Jack Han tweeted about it.

Boucher came to call what St. Louis told him the “Loi du 85%” or the 85% Rule. At the time, the Lightning were playing their guts out every night, giving the proverbial 110% for their new coach. Boucher said they were “playing on adrenaline.”

St. Louis told Boucher that this was unsustainable — it’s not possible to give a full-out effort and rely on adrenaline night after night. Players will get fatigued or, worse, hurt. Over the full course of a season, they’ll wear down. Sometimes, over the course of a single game, those cracks can show.

Instead, St. Louis said that he regularly gives 85% effort. That was his baseline level of effort every game “and when I have peaks to give, I give them when it’s time.”

St. Louis had 99 points, won the Lady Byng Trophy, and was a Second-Team All-Star that season, so you can’t argue that he wasn’t trying hard enough and Boucher came to understand that St. Louis was right. You can’t expect even professional athletes to push the pedal to the metal at all times — what you want instead is a consistent 85% effort from every player, with that extra 15% in reserve, available to draw upon when the time is right.

Perhaps you can already see how this might relate to the Vancouver Canucks.

Last season, after Bruce Boudreau took over, the Canucks were not playing at 85%. With a new head coach to impress and a wave of confidence from a string of wins, the Canucks played full-tilt — 100% effort every night — and they couldn’t sustain it. It’s something Boudreau acknowledged late in the season.  

“Not to make excuses, but it is difficult to get up, and emotionally up, for every game,” said Boudreau. “It's what makes the playoffs special because you can do it for short periods of time. We've had to do it every single game.”

Essentially, the Canucks were playing every regular season game as if it was a playoff game and the human body and mind aren’t built to do that. 

The best teams in the NHL can win games in the regular season while giving 85% effort, perhaps dialing up the effort here and there when necessary. Then, in the playoffs, those teams seem to find another level because they’ve had that 15% waiting in reserve, only accessing it when they needed it.

The Canucks, on the other hand, don’t have that consistent 85% game that St. Louis talked about. Instead, it feels like they’ve been all-or-nothing throughout the season. They’ve talked about playing a full 60 minutes all season long but the issue in a lot of games seems to be that they’re playing that all-out, 100%, playoff-intensity game and can’t sustain it.

When their 85% opponents dip into the well and add that extra 15% for five minutes, ten minutes, or an entire period, the Canucks have no answer and fall apart.

On Monday against the New Jersey Devils, it wasn’t even five minutes; it was less than one minute, where they gave up three-straight goals to fall behind 4-1. But the Canucks managed to claw back those three goals to force overtime with a high-pace, high-intensity game that doesn’t seem the least bit sustainable.

85% of the time, I watched this game.

  • This was a tremendously exciting game, as the Canucks and Devils — whatever percentage they each were giving — were both flying right from puck drop. And maybe it’s just confirmation bias, but the Canucks did look a little bit crisper and more structured, with better positioning against the rush, more discipline to avoid chasing the puck in the defensive zone, and more consistent support down low from the forwards. 
  • That down-low support led to the opening goal. Elias Pettersson came all the way below the goal line on the backcheck, picking up a loose puck and swinging it to Luke Schenn for a quick counterattack. Schenn hit Andrei Kuzmenko in stride and the wild-haired winger did the rest, dancing past Hamilton like he was in the ensemble with a quick toe-drag, then snapped the puck past Vitek Vanecek.
  • Anthony Beauvillier got the chance to play with Pettersson and Kuzmenko in his first game with the Canucks and he acquitted himself well, with good speed, some strong play along the boards, and a decent touch with the puck. He led the Canucks in corsi percentage, with the Canucks out-attempting the Devils 19-to-11 when he was on the ice. Trés beau, indeed.
  • That line of Beauvillier, Pettersson, and Kuzmenko looked electric with all sorts of possession in the offensive zone and were unlucky not to puck up another goal or two beyond Kuzmenko’s opener. On the other hand, the line was out-scored 3-to-1 by the Devils, which is slightly less beau. It’s mildly moche, even.
  • Jack Hughes scored the first of those three goals to tie the game in the first period. Ironically, the Devils’ colour commentator noted that Hughes “draws so much attention to him” just before he slipped out of sight in the neutral zone, with Kuzmenko losing track of him. With Ethan Bear out of position, Hughes took the tip pass from Fabian Zetterlund and moved in all alone, with only Pettersson diving out in desperation to try to stop him. He couldn’t and neither could Collin Delia, who got deked right out of his pants.
  • After a weak goal against the Chicago Blackhawks before the break, Delia was upfront about what went wrong. “I went to go down and the pad wasn’t there,” he said. “Just got to get down harder, slam my knees down.” So, it was neat to see him do exactly that to rob Jesper Bratt on an early second-period breakaway when he tried to slide a quick shot through the five-hole. Bratt best? No, Bratt worst.  
  • Pettersson responded with a breakaway of his own on a superb bank pass off the boards by Beauvilliler. He rang the post, making a distinct F# tone, for his league-leading 12th post/crossbar of the season. Do we need to count the pings again?
  • The Canucks’ minute of misfortune started with an Ondrej Palat tip on a Dougie Hamilton point shot, neatly knocking the puck between Delia’s knees, which didn’t slam to the ice quite quickly enough this time.
  • Then, before the Canucks could cleanse their palate, Palat painted a picture with a painful palette, picking up the puck from Tyler Myers, who may as well have delivered it on a pallet right to him, and puncturing Delia’s posture like he was preparing a poulet for spit-roasting. If all that wordplay is unpalatable, I’ll be a pal and make my meaning more palliative: Myers turned the puck over to Palat, who scored.
  • Seconds later, Riley Stillman lost the puck and position on his man, Zetterlund. As he drove to the net, Schenn moved to help, leaving the backdoor open for Jack Hughes. Perhaps Conor Garland could have skated back more aggressively to try to disrupt Hughes instead of just crouching and pointing his stick in the vague direction of a passing lane. Just a thought.
  • Just like that, it was 4-1. It looked like the game was lost but the Canucks are very aware how three-goal leads can slip away, so you have to think they never lost hope.
  • Schenn got one back five minutes later. With Sheldon Dries screening in front, Schenn wasted no time sending a half-clapper sailing towards the net. The quick shot was a great choice, as Vanecek never saw the puck come off his stick and couldn’t see past the stubbornly opaque Dries, so had no idea where to position himself and the puck floated just inside the post.
  • An unlikely duo combined to get the Canucks within one in the final minute of the second period. After Delia dragged his glove to prevent a tap-in goal on a 2-on-1, Stillman jumped up the left wing, drove wide on Damon Severson, and found Curtis Lazar, left wide open in front by Jonas Siegenthaler. Lazar one-timed the puck inside the far post for his first goal since October 17.
  • Give Garland some credit for the goal too. His drive to the far post drew Jack Hughes to cover him. Siegenthaler thought Hughes was available to pick up Lazar, which is why he left him open to check Stillman. 
  • Phil di Giuseppe, nearly two years after he was one of the best players at the Canucks’ 2021 training camp, finally got his first goal as a Canuck in just his second game. It wasn’t just Di Giuseppe; it was delivery — a superb stretch pass by J.T. Miller, who sent Di Giuseppe in on a 2-on-1 with Dries. With Vanecek cheating slightly in case of a pass, Di Giuseppe was hot and ready to rip the puck short side, delivering delight to Canucks fans. 
  • The Canucks penalty kill didn’t look great, giving up some very dangerous chances, but there are no style points for a penalty kill. The Canucks kept the Devils’ power play off the board, at least in regulation, despite giving up a 5-on-3 power play in the third period. They were hanging on for dear life but, like the cat that got caught in a plane wing in French Guiana, at least they hung on. 
  • On the 32 Thoughts podcast, Pettersson said that he outgrew all the expensive clothes he bought when he first came to Vancouver. He didn’t grow in stature, of course; he grew in muscles. He flexed those muscles on a huge hit on Siegenthaler on the forecheck late in the third period. 
  • There was some controversy in overtime when J.T. Miller went down in the defensive zone under the check of Yegor Sharangovich, with no call from the referees. Two minutes later, Kuzmenko was called for a hooking penalty that, on first glance, looked soft. The Canucks protested to no avail and social media lit up with complaints from Canucks fans over the injustice of it all.
  • Actually, it wasn’t just Canucks fans. Comedian Bill Burr, a noted hockey fan, was evidently watching the game and he was up in arms about the Kuzmenko penalty and the missed call on Miller. Perhaps it was fueled more by distaste for the Devils but it takes a lot for a Boston Bruins fan to get upset on behalf of the Canucks.
  • Here’s the thing: the refs got it right. On further review, Sharangovich didn’t do a damn thing to Miller beyond tapping his stick; Miller lost his footing and went down on his own. The Kuzmenko hook, on the other hand, could not have been more blatant: he very intentionally put his stick in Bratt’s path and the blade of his stick wrapped right around Bratt’s waist. He was water-skiing behind Bratt like it was the nineties. 
  • Don’t get me wrong, the refs missed some other calls, like the two-handed chop on Dakota Joshua’s stick as he drove to the net shown below. But sometimes they get things right and one of those instances was the non-call on Sharangovich.
  • The Canucks’ penalty kill held up against the 5-on-3 in regulation but couldn’t keep the Devils from scoring on the 4-on-3 in overtime. Miller got dragged across by Jack Hughes but didn’t stay high enough in the Canucks’ triangle to take away the passing lane to Bratt, instead waving his stick into the shooting lane, which was already being covered by Schenn. It was all too easy for Hughes to slide the puck cross-seam into Bratt’s wheelhouse and he blasted the one-timer past Delia to give the Devils the win.
  • One last thing: yes, I know I need to make a new graphic for the I Watched This Game feature now that Bo Horvat has been traded. To be honest, I'm nervous about changing it too soon in case Brock Boeser also gets moved before the trade deadline. I'll figure something out.