Rick Tocchet passed his first test with flying colours.
No, not beating the Chicago Blackhawks, who are blatantly tanking this season no matter what Gary Bettman says. Yes, the Vancouver Canucks performed well in their first game with their new head coach, but Tocchet’s first test was something else:
Dealing with an occasionally cantankerous Canucks fanbase.
Early in the first period, Canucks’ in-arena announcer Al Murdoch, in his inimitable voice, cheerfully introduced Tocchet as the 21st head coach in Canucks history. The response from the Rogers Arena crowd was…mixed, at best.
Still hurting from the fresh wound of Bruce Boudreau’s mishandled dismissal, Canucks fans treated Tocchet to a chorus of boos that drowned out the more restrained applause and cheers. It was impossible to ignore and, to his credit, Tocchet didn’t. In fact, he had the perfect response, more perfect than he possibly even knew.
“You don’t know what my middle name is? It’s Lou,” said Tocchet when asked about the welcome he received. “People, I think they knew my middle name is Lou.”
In other words, they weren’t booing Tocchet at all. In his mind, they were Lou-ing.
It’s the perfect quippy comeback to what could have been an awkward situation, especially for Vancouver, which has a history of Lou-ing star players, starting with legendary BC Lions placekicker Lui Passaglia, then Hall-of-Fame goaltender Roberto Luongo when he joined the Canucks.
Was Tocchet aware of the Canucks’ habit of Lou-ing when he made that joke? Maybe. He did, after all, coach against the Luongo-led Canucks when he was head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, albeit just once in Vancouver. He would have had to dig deep into the memory banks to remember the Lou-ing for Luongo from February 27, 2009, when Luongo made 20 saves on 21 shots for a 2-1 win.
In any case, Tocchet was appreciative of the fans overall, though he joked that he wasn’t “trying to suck up to them or anything like that.”
“They were loud,” said Tocchet. “They're a great fan base. I mean, they're passionate and they were loud as hell.”
There was no need for Tocchet to be offended by the boos, of course. They weren’t really about him. Tocchet jokingly took it as Lou-ing, but the fans may as well have been saying, “Boooooruce, there it is.”
I was saying “Boo-urns” as I watched this game.
- Whether it was relief from the conclusion of the Boudreau situation or wanting to make a good first impression with their new head coach, this was an outright dominant game from the Canucks, even considering the putrescence of their opponents, who are dead last in the Western Conference with a 14-28-4 record. The Canucks out-shot the Blackhawks 48-to-14 and limited the Blackhawks to just five high-danger chances.
- “You have to stay in it mentally,” said Collin Delia, who barely saw any shots and even fewer chances. “It’s actually different when you play the teams that are putting up a lot of shots, you’re constantly feeling the puck, tracking it. But I don’t think they had many grade-As, so it was interesting shot quality.”
- Let’s be blunt: you can’t instill entirely new systems over the course of one practice, so you can’t really credit the Canucks’ defensive performance to better structure. But the Canucks were solid defensively in this game and, more importantly in Tocchet’s view, they didn’t let the game get away with them when they got “antsy” — something that has been a trend for the Canucks this season.
- “I threw a lot of — not so much systems stuff but some stuff at them today,” said Tocchet. “We had longer meetings than I’d like to and for them to take it in and play good, I commend the players.”
- There was good reason for the Canucks to get “antsy.” Despite out-shooting the Blackhawks 21-to-6 in the first period, they went into the intermission down 1-0. A long shot from Patrick Kane appeared to get accidentally tipped by Elias Pettersson in the slot, changing direction just enough to evade Collin Delia. Pettersson appeared to be beating himself up on the bench but Tocchet gave him a comforting shoulder squeeze.
- “He’s an elite guy,” said Tocchet of Pettersson. “He didn’t like his first period, you could tell. You like leadership in that, like he goes, ‘Okay, I’m going to start playing the game.’”
- Sheldon Dries dropped the gloves with the much larger Connor Murphy in the first period for his first NHL fight, though he was known for his fisticuffs at lower levels. “Back in the day, I fought quite a bit but as the other guys grew, I didn’t,” said Dries with a grin despite a fat lip. “I’m on the smaller side, so you’ve just got to protect yourself, you know…I’m not going to find anyone smaller than me, they’re always bigger.”
- The shots and puck possession numbers at 5-on-5 were legitimately hilarious. Shot attempts were 61-to-21 for the Canucks at 5-on-5, while shots on goal were 38-to-5. That’s absolutely absurd and it goes to show that when it comes to tanking, the Canucks just can’t compete with the Blackhawks.
- “We’ve got to get a little more net presence,” said Tocchet, who wasn’t satisfied with the team’s one-sided possession. “Sometimes when you have a lot of puck possession, you like to play like the Russian Five used to play, right? You’ve gotta be careful you don’t have guys playing too much on the perimeter.”
- There’s a certain irony to referencing the Russian Five as perimeter players, as it was a couple of Russians who went hard to the net to get the Canucks’ first goal. Pettersson battled his way through multiple Blackhawks to kick the puck in front, where Ilya Mikheyev fired one shot, then Andrei Kuzmenko zoomed in and smoothly cleaned up the garbage like a Roomba.
- One of the biggest plays of the game came from Dakota Joshua, who chased down a Patrick Kane breakaway, broke up the breakaway, then broke down Kane, erasing him against the boards. That raised the ire of Max Domi, who looked more like Minimum Domi against the larger Joshua in an abbreviated fight.
- I’ve been pretty forgiving of the Canucks’ goaltending struggles this season given the tire fire of a defence they’re playing behind, but there was no forgiving Delia on the Blackhawks’ second goal. Did Sam Lafferty have a completely unopposed zone entry thanks to a terrible gap by Tyler Myers? And did he have essentially unfettered access to the high slot? Yes to both questions, but his shot was a weak one and had to be stopped, as Delia himself readily admitted.
- “I was pretty bad out there on that second one,” said Delia bluntly. “I just went to go down and my pad wasn’t there. Just got to get down harder, slam my knees down…You’ve got to view it as a wake-up call — an opportunity to dial it in and be good, challenge yourself that way. Let’s just be solid, make calm saves, and re-instill confidence back in the team that that was a one-off goal.”
- Pettersson and Kuzmenko combined again to tie the game. Pettersson shook Jason Dickinson with a quick shift to the outside, then pulled the puck wide on Seth Jones and fired it to Kuzmenko in front, who deftly slipped free from Jake McCabe’s stick lift to tip the puck past Petr Mrazek for his second goal of the game.
- Joshua got the bump up the lineup to a line with Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser in the third period and made the most of it. Boeser played a give-and-go with Quinn Hughes to get to the net but was stymied by Mrazek. As he tried to jam the puck in, Joshua was first to a loose puck and chipped it in before getting cross-checked down on top of Mrazek by Domi, sending Mrazek groin-first into the post, which can’t have felt good.
- “That wasn’t very pleasant but I’ll take the goal, I’ll take that every time,” said Joshua about the lumber in the back. When asked what was said between Joshua and Domi after the goal, Joshua quipped, “I think he said, ‘Nice goal.’”
- Dries also made the most of playing up the lineup with J.T. Miller and Conor Garland. 34 seconds after Joshua made it 3-2, Miller set up Dries for a shot in the high slot that went wide, but Garland backhanded the rebound towards the net, where Mrazek kicked it out to Dries, who neatly went between his own legs to finish off the play and simultaneously trip himself to the ice. At least he didn’t send the goalscorer on top of Mrazek, like Domi did.
- Bo Horvat’s goalscoring pace has slowed a bit recently, with no goals in his last four games — his longest drought of the season. Despite playing 23:56 — the type of ice time Tocchet said he wanted to avoid — in a matchup role against Kane and several good chances, Horvat couldn’t find the back of the net until the very end of the game when the Blackhawks pulled Mrazek for the extra attacker. It still counts, even if all of the NHL GMs who were in attendance scouting out potential trade targets had already cleared out of the building and didn’t see it.
- Luke Schenn got an assist on the goal too, digging the puck out of skates off a scrambled faceoff before Horvat sent it the length of the ice into the yawning cage at the other end. Hear that, NHL GMs? Luke Schenn got another point, his 16th of the season, on pace for a career year! He could be getting points like that for your team for the low, low cost of a first-round pick!
- All in all, it was a promising start to the Rick Tocchet era, with some interesting lineup choices, a smart gameplan to match up the Horvat and Miller lines against top competition and get Pettersson softer opposition, and some good hustle from those who have been maligned for their lack of it in the past. Now let’s see Paul Allen’s card. Er, I mean, now let’s see how they do against a team that isn’t the Blackhawks.
- "Sure, you like the result," said Tocchet, "but, to me, the hard part is to do it again. You've got to [line] change again hard, you've got to track hard — it's hard to win and you've got to embrace the hardness."
- No, I will not make a joke about "embrace the hardness."