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I Watched This Game: Canucks crush Canadiens beneath Zadorov's giant foot

The Canucks kept their foot on the gas pedal the entire game to cruise past the Canadiens.
The Vancouver Canucks limited the Montreal Canadiens to just 17 shots on goal on Thursday night.

When a team takes a multi-goal lead in hockey, it’s not unusual for them to take their foot off the gas a little. Conversely, when a team goes down by a couple of goals, they often push the pace and take more risks, leading to them out-shooting their opponents and opening the door for a potential comeback.

The Vancouver Canucks have seen the perils of a light touch on the gas pedal, however. Just a few games ago, they coughed up a 3-0 lead to the Colorado Avalanche, losing 4-3 in overtime. They were lacking what defenceman Nikita Zadorov called the “killer instinct” to “step on their throat and shut it down.”

So, on Thursday night against the visiting Montreal Canadiens, they kept the pedal to the metal the whole way, putting the Canadiens out of their misery with an absolutely dominant third period after taking a multi-goal lead.

It’s not like the Canadiens didn’t see it coming. Before the game, interim head coach and former Canuck Trevor Letowski knew that the Canucks’ forecheck was going to be a nightmare.

“They’re obviously a good, highly-offensive team but they play a pretty simple game,” said Letowski. “They play a pretty heavy style of game and they play a deep game, so they’re going to pressure our young D. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge…breaking the puck out cleanly against this team is difficult.”

In the third period, breaking the puck out cleanly wasn’t just difficult; it was borderline impossible. The Canucks never relented, resulting in a 25-to-9 advantage in shot attempts in the third period, a 7-to-3 advantage in shots on goal, and a 5-to-0 advantage in high-danger chances.

“I don't think they had a chance in the third, our video guys were telling me when I walked in,” said Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet. 

“I think when you're up, sometimes you're on your heels on the forecheck, so you don't go as hard,” he added. “You allow the team to come out and they come at you in waves and then all of a sudden, you're skating backwards in the neutral zone and you're defending. 

“For me, we don't want to back off. If we're responsible [with our] F3 on their high forward, we should go hard and if there's a rim and the pinch is available, because we have people above, take the pinch. I think when we back off, that's when we get in trouble.”

It wasn’t just the forecheck, of course. The Canucks avoided making mistakes with the puck. While they established an aggravating, hard-hitting forecheck, their clean breakouts made it hard for the Canadiens to do the same.

“We didn't screw around with the puck in the third,” said Tocchet. “We start screwing around with the puck then who knows what happens or you take a stupid penalty. That's the kind of thing we're trying to get away from.”

As a result, the Canucks gave the Canadiens nothing. You lose. Good day, sir.  

“We worked as a unit of five,” said Zadorov. “I thought we had really good gaps and made them dump the puck in and they didn’t really have a good forecheck. I thought that was the difference in the game.”

I know better than to argue with someone as big as Zadorov, so I also thought it was the difference when I watched this game.

  • The Canucks played a very physical game and it showed in the boxscore, as they were credited with a whopping 40 hits, led by Noah Juulsen and Vasily Podkolzin, who had six hits each. They were pumping out the hits like Todd Storz, as they could have made a literal Top 40.
  • “This is a team where you have to play through them,” said Tocchet. “You don’t have to kill people but I think getting in front of people is something that we continually have to do. As the season goes on here, that’s a priority.”
  • Casey DeSmith only had to face 17 shots on goal — the Canucks limiting shots has become a theme — but he still had to come up with some big saves, particularly in the first period. I particularly liked how he got creative to swing his back leg behind him to seal the post and prevent Nick Suzuki from cheekily banking the puck in from below the goal line.
  • The Canucks’ power play, after looking so dangerous against the Buffalo Sabres in their last game, looked a little meeker against the Canadiens, and I’m not talking about Howie. Midway through the first period in a goalless game, they got a massive opportunity on a 5-on-3 but like the tiny island republic of Nauru, they couldn’t capitalize. 
  • The powerless power play could have been costly. As the last penalty expired, an ill-considered pass by Nils Höglander to the point gave the Canadiens a 2-on-1. Fortunately for the Canucks, Casey DeSmith got the shaft of his stick on Brendan Gallagher’s deke to the backhand, keeping the score all tied up like water at its highest point on the beach.
  • “Critical. That’s a two-goal swing,” said Tocchet of the save. “You don’t convert on the power play, a 5-on-3, and then they score, it demoralizes the team. It really does. And I think Casey with that save kind of let everybody breathe a little bit. Key moment of the game.”
  • A few minutes later, the Canucks opened the scoring. Elias Lindholm covered for a pinching Quinn Hughes and made a smart spin at the blue line to swing the puck down low to Ilya Mikheyev. The fleet-footed winger found his fellow Russian at the point and Zadorov’s quick shot beat Sam Montembeault past a Sam Lafferty screen. All five Canucks on the ice played a part in the goal but there were only three points to go around.
  • Before the period was done, Zadorov added another goal. As Gallagher was slow to the bench with an apparent injury, Zadorov took advantage to join the rush as the trailer, beavertailing with his stick for a pass. Mikheyev obliged and Zadorov made like the puck was a Slim Jim and snapped into it, sending it past Montembeault to make it 2-0.
  • That made it a two-goal night for Zadorov and a two-assist night for Mikheyev, who has looked rejuvenated on a line with Lindholm. While Lindholm didn’t get the three shots he was looking for, he did get two and he and his linemates combined for five shots on goal while playing a pretty dominant puck possession game. Mikheyev, Lindholm, and Lafferty are starting to look like a solid line.
  • “I think [Mikheyev’s] skating the last ten days has really improved,” said Tocchet. “He looks like he’s got that extra juice, that extra gear. And that’s his game, right? If he can skate and chase pucks down, that really helps our team.”
  • Like a too-thick salsa, this game got chippy. The Canucks gave the Canadiens three-straight power plays in the second period, including one out of a massive scrum where the 5’8” Conor Garland mixed things up with the 6’4” Arber Xhekaj. Evidently, Garland gave as good as he got, if not better, because Garland was the one who got the extra penalty out of the two.
  • The chippiness perhaps put a chip on Garland’s shoulder, as he was the one to make it 3-0 for the Canucks. Teddy Blueger slipped a lovely pass through the neutral zone to the slashing Garland, who leaned into the puck and sent it off the post and in with a lovely “ping” sound. 
  • “Teddy just made a great play,” said Garland. “He just had some poise and put it under the guy’s stick and hit me in stride. I was fortunate enough the D was on the end of a late shift and I was aware I was going to have some time there as he couldn’t get all the way over. I just got lucky it hit the post and went the right way.”
  • The Canadiens quickly responded in the final minute of the second period. As Brock Boeser battled to get the puck out of the defensive zone, J.T. Miller hacked at the puck and hit Boeser in the skate, turning the puck over to Cole Caufield, his long shot was tipped in by Juraj Slafkovsky. That was an unfortunate mistake by Miller but it was quickly overshadowed by a much bigger mistake by the Canucks goal horn operator, who must have mistook the roars of the many Canadiens fans in attendance and thought it was a goal for the home team, sounding the goal horn for a split second before catching his error.
  • I caught up with the goal horn operator in the intermission, by the way, and he is very, very sorry. Please be nice.
  • The third period was largely uneventful, as the Canucks didn’t allow the late second-period goal to affect them in the slightest. James Bond would have hated them, as they were entirely unshaken and frequently stirred...up trouble for the Canadiens. 
  • It was all depth scoring for the Canucks in this one, as Nils Åman extended the lead to 4-1 in the third period. Blueger won the faceoff and Vasily Podkolzin tapped the puck back to Tyler Myers. His point shot was tipped back like a medium-dry vodka martini by Åman, ending his 23-game goal drought that dated back to December 23.
  • While the depth provided the goals, it was the top-six line of Nils Höglander, Elias Pettersson, and Conor Garland that was the best on the forecheck. Shot attempts were 8-to-1 for the Canucks when that trio was on the ice together at 5-on-5, partly due to relentless work by Garland and Höglander down low, such as this play where the Canadiens went 3-on-1 to finally get the puck off Garland only for Höglander to swoop in and steal it right back.
  • I get the feeling that whoever the Canucks face in the playoffs is going to thoroughly despise Garland and Höglander by the end of the series. 
  • Finally, Tanner Pearson returned to Rogers Arena for the first time since he was traded to the Canadiens for Casey DeSmith. Before the game, I asked him about the challenge of dealing with the uncertainty of his hand injury from last year, which had put his career in jeopardy.

    “Honestly, I just took it day by day,” said Pearson. “I don’t really like talking about the hand too much but I guess in this place it’s probably going to come up. Just took it day by day, that hopefully that the next day was better than the last.”