When the playoffs are no longer a possibility, what do you have to play for?
That was the question facing the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday night, their first game since being officially eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s also been a question that has faced the Canucks far too many times over the past decade.
For most of the game, it seemed like the answer was “nothing.” The Canucks played a thoroughly lacklustre first period and were only slightly better in the second but gave up two goals to the Los Angeles Kings, entering the third period down 2-0, with little sign that the Canucks had anything more to give.
And who could blame them? The Canucks put on a tremendous push over the last few months to crawl out of the hole they had dug for themselves to start the season but they seemed to run out of gas last week. They expended so much energy pushing back into playoff contention that they could be forgiven for letting up just a little when the dream of a playoff berth was taken away.
With just a period left to play, I resigned myself to writing an IWTG feature with the headline, “The Canucks technically played a hockey game against the Kings.”
But then, in the third period, the Canucks apparently found something to play for.
Maybe it was seeing Spencer Martin make save after save to keep the team in it and realizing they couldn’t just hang him out to dry. Maybe it was players wanting to prove to themselves they’re as good as a playoff team like the Kings or prove to Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin that the team isn’t that far away from success and they can be part of a contending team.
“We’ve battled so hard all year and for us to come and play a team that’s in the playoffs, we took a lot of pride in that,” said Brock Boeser. “It still meant a lot to a lot of us, just to show what our team’s capable of. I talk about it a lot but it’s pretty amazing where we are right now compared to where we were at the beginning of the year.”
Bruce Boudreau talked after the morning skate about still having goals for each game, saying, “We want 40 wins. We want to catch Vegas. We want to go the last eight home games going 6-0-2…There’s always something to play for.” They took a step towards accomplishing those goals with the third period comeback.
“It would have been easy for the last two games to just fold the tent,” said Boudreau. “After fighting so hard for so long to get to where you want to be and you don’t get there, it’s like the air out of a balloon, but these guys kept fighting.”
Given it was fan appreciation night, perhaps it was all about the fans. The entire 2020-21 season was played without fans in attendance because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but rinks were opened up to full capacity for most of this past season. The players have talked about what a big difference it makes.
“It’s amazing. They stuck with us the whole year, even when times were tough at the beginning of the year,” said Boeser. “They still showed up and were electric every single night — the ‘Bruce, there it is’ chants and everything like that. It makes it exciting for us to come to the rink and play in front of them.”
What better way to give back to the fans than to give them one of the most exciting experiences in sports — a thrilling, come-from-behind victory?
Who cares that it required an utterly dreary two-thirds of a game to get those thrills? Certainly not me when I watched this game.
- The first period in particular was tough to watch. Does it still count as watching the game if my eyes glazed over as I started at the screen?
- There were two positives for the Canucks in the first period. One was the play of Spencer Martin, who stopped all 13 shots he faced. The other was the penalty kill, which successfully killed off a full six minutes in penalties, largely thanks to the aforementioned Martin, who was sharper than 10-year-old cheddar.
- In a small sample size, Martin has been outstanding at the NHL level this season and looks like he’ll have the inside track at backing up Thatcher Demko next season. He has yet to lose in regulation in his five starts and has posted a superb .951 save percentage. In fact, superb doesn’t cut it. He’s been super-A+.
- With how well Martin was playing, it was a shame that the opening goal was such a weak one. It’s not that Martin played it poorly — he was completely screened by both Kings winger Brendan Lemieux and his own defenceman, Travis Dermott — but it just wasn’t a great shot. Gabe Vilardi just casually threw the puck towards the net and it found its way in.
- Please note the way Quinn “Johnny Cash” Hughes walks the line on this second-period play, deftly avoiding the pressure from the Kings forward to keep the puck in at the blue line and extend an offensive zone possession. This is what we in the writing business call “foreshadowing.”
- It seemed like it really wasn’t going to be the Canucks’ night when the best chance they got all game — a 2-on-1 for Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser — just turned into a clip for the highlight reel of Kings goaltender Cal Petersen. It was a great setup from Pettersson and Boeser elevated the shot, but Petersen stretched his blocker across and the puck hit both it and Petersen’s stick and went out of play.
- “It was a great look,” said Boeser. “That was a great play by Petey, I thought he sold it pretty well. Cal came across pretty good there. I thought I put it in the upper half of the net and he got his blocker up. It’s just one of those saves where you have to tip your cap and move on from it.”
- To make matters worse, the Kings took the puck the other way off the ensuing faceoff and made it 2-0. J.T. Miller completely lost track of Adrian Kempe in the neutral zone, allowing him to blow past Travis Dermott, who was following his man as he cut across the blue line. Kempe caught Martin off-guard with a quick shot along the ice.
- The Canucks completely turned the game around in the third period. It started with Juho Lammikko drawing a penalty while driving to the net, then Boeser drew a penalty of his own while crashing the net on the power play, giving the Canucks a 5-on-3. It turns out if you go to the net, good things happen, which is the opposite of what happens when you go to the ‘net, which I think we can all agree is a mistake.
- Boeser drew the penalty and got the goal. It was a nifty passing play — a cross-ice saucer pass from J.T. Miller to Pettersson, who had already hobbled Alex Edler with a hard shot. Pettersson had plenty of space to shoot again, so Petersen overplayed Pettersson, allowing Pettersson to pass back inside to Boeser to beat Petersen with a one-timer.
- Why does typing Petersen and Pettersson repeatedly make me want to write Peter picked a peck of pickled peppers?
- Boeser was pretty clearly the Canucks’ best skater, not just because he scored a pair of goals, but also because of how he tilted the ice. Shot attempts were 14-to-6 when Boeser was on the ice at 5-on-5 and shots on goal were 9-to-3. His line with Pettersson and Podkolzin was, like Europe during the Enlightenment, all over the Kings.
- It took a brilliant play by Hughes at the blue line to create the tying goal. Remember the foreshadowing from earlier? Call it Chekhov’s holding the blue line.
- With the puck at the blue line and under pressure from Vilardi, Hughes seemed to have nowhere to go. Then he suddenly spun off Vilardi and exploded into the middle of the ice, creating a shooting lane for himself out of nowhere. Alex Chiasson’s attempted tip instead knocked the puck down, but that just allowed him to get a backhand shot off that ramped up Troy Stecher’s stick and in.
- “I have no idea how many guys can do that,” said Boudreau of Hughes’ move. “I don’t see Cale Makar a lot, I don’t see [Adam Fox] a lot, but he does it so smoothly. It’s not like he does it and looks like he’s panicking. He’s just going, ‘I’m going to turn and I’ll deke this guy and I’ll get there.’ He can keep the puck on the blue line like nobody I’ve ever seen… It’s an incredible trait.”
- I appreciated the brief shift in overtime where Quinn Hughes, Conor Garland, and Sheldon Dries were on the ice together. It’s not often that every skater on the ice for a team is under 5’10”.
- Martin came up big in overtime, making two five-alarm saves in the space of ten seconds, first getting just enough of Blake Lizotte’s shot to turn it aside, then snagging Andreas Athanasiou’s shot with his glove and quickly dropping it for Hughes to maintain puck possession with no whistle.
- That set the stage for a wild finish, with Boudreau putting three forwards on the ice in the final minute — Pettersson, Boeser, and Miller. Like he was up against a professional poker player with pocket Aces, Pettersson got in trouble with a pair of Kings, but he made the most of it with some subtle cheating, kicking the feet out from under Lizotte as he fell to the ice. That freed up the puck for Boeser, whose initial shot was stopped and second shot was blocked, but third shot was the charm.
- Boudreau was in rare form as he delivered his post-game speech to his team: “I just want to say how proud I am of you guys. From the minute I got here, you guys have taken direction, you’ve f***ing worked your asses off, and you almost did the impossible, and I want to thank you guys for making this really easy on me as a coach.”