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I Watched This Game: Canucks dismiss desperate Senators with 5-2 win

The Vancouver Canucks got two-point nights from J.T. Miller, Andrei Kuzmenko, Dakota Joshua, and Nils Åman.
The Vancouver Canucks had no problems with the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night.

Last season, the Vancouver Canucks had a stunning turnaround after a midseason coaching change. After an 8-15-2 start to the season under head coach Travis Green, the Canucks rallied with a 32-15-10 record to end the season under new coach Bruce Boudreau.

While the Canucks still missed the playoffs, their 106-point pace under Boudreau had fans — and management — thinking that this was the real Canucks. They were just being stifled under Green and were finally let loose under Boudreau. With a full season with Boudreau as head coach, including a full training camp and preseason, the Canucks would surely rocket their way back to the playoffs.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

The Canucks stumbled out of the gate for the 2022-23 season, losing their first seven games — a mirror image of their seven-game winning streak when Boudreau initially took over. Their training camp, which Boudreau had been so eager to have when he started, was publicly criticized by president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford. By the time Boudreau was painfully let go, the Canucks had an 18-25-3 record and were 27th in the NHL, miles out of the playoffs.

Now, the same thing is happening again.

It hasn’t been as pronounced and it’s been aided by a soft schedule and the return of Thatcher Demko from injury, but the Canucks have once again been playing better under a new head coach. Rick Tocchet has seemingly gotten the Canucks to buy into his detailed system and preaching of hardnosed hockey. 

The Canucks are 10-7-2 under Tocchet, which still isn’t great. However, with their win on Saturday over the Ottawa Senators, they did win four-straight games for the first time all season. Call it a modest improvement.

But it’s not the record that gives Canucks fans hope; it’s the process. The Canucks’ breakout is crisper, they’re giving up fewer odd-man rushes, and they’re not falling apart at the slightest hint of adversity. The cross-seam passes, both at even-strength and on the penalty kill, have gone down, making life easier on their goaltenders. There have been fewer defensive zone breakdowns with opponents left wide open.

The improvements have been noticeable. The question is whether they’ll last. At this point, success down the stretch is just a bonus for Canucks fans who want to see the team sock a few dingers and devastating for the fans hoping for a high draft pick. The Canucks won’t be silencing any doubters until they prove they can play winning hockey for a full season. 

Why am I still on the doubting side of things? Perhaps it's because a four-game winning streak is being held up as an actual accomplishment. 

Are the real Canucks the team stifled by Green, the team let loose by Boudreau, the team let apparently far too loose by Boudreau, or the team reined in by Tocchet? Which team will show up to start next season? Would the real Canucks please stand up?

I accidentally got Eminem stuck in my head while I watched this game.

  • The Ottawa Senators did not look like a team desperately trying to make the playoffs on Saturday night. They only managed to get 20 shots on goal and yes, the Canucks have been playing with better defensive structure but their blue line still features Guillaume Brisebois and Noah Juulsen. If you can only muster up 20 shots on goal against that defence, maybe the playoffs are not for you. 
  • Andrei Kuzmenko remains the Anti-Tank Missile, scoring his ninth and tenth goals in the past 11 games. Did he do it by taking more shots? Of course not. Kuzmenko scored two goals on three shots, only improving his already league-leading shooting percentage.
  • It was a fantastic game for the winger: shot attempts were 14-to-3 for the Canucks when he was on the ice at 5-on-5 and scoring chances were 11-to-0. That’s about as tilted as the ice gets, unless you’re stupidly climbing on an iceberg.  
  • Kuzmenko has benefited a lot from playing with Elias Pettersson, but he opened the scoring with Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller in the midst of a line change. It actually started with Phil di Giuseppe, who picked a pocket to keep the puck in the Senators zone, then raced to the bench to bring on Kuzmenko. Miller did the work down low to keep the play alive with help from a pinching Tyler Myers, then found Kuzmenko streaking to the net. Kuzmenko took the puck, made the best drag move since Tandi Iman Dupree’s death drop from the ceiling, then tucked it in, also like Tandi Iman Dupree.
  • Miller had a major impact on the game, quite literally. Aside from his two-point night, Miller also had five hits, three of them in the shift leading up to Kuzmenko’s goal. The Senators were running around and taking the body early in the game, so credit to Miller for responding in kind.
  • “I thought he was a monster tonight,” said Tocchet. “He’s been playing really well. His two-way game — I’ve been putting him against the top line most nights — and his production, he’s been great.”
  • Here’s a wild statistic: over his past nine games, J.T. Miller has 11 points; 7 of those points have come on the penalty kill and none on the power play. Miller has four shorthanded goals and three shorthanded assists in that time, helping the Canucks outscore opposing power plays 7-to-5 in their last ten games. That is bonkers.
  • One of those shorthanded goals made it 2-0. Nils Åman forced the puck out of the zone, then badgered Alex DeBrincat in the neutral zone, forcing a turnover to Miller. A quick pass over a sliding DeBrincat sent Åman in alone, but, like he had just listened to Coldplay’s best song, Åman didn’t panic; instead, he patiently moved the puck back to Miller for the easy finish.
  • Åman added a goal after Dakota Joshua put in work. Joshua bullied the puck over the blue line past a bewildered Nick Holden, who seemed to be expecting an offside call that never came. Joshua drove to the net but was cut off at the last second like he was trying to drive literally anywhere in Vancouver. Fortunately, Åman also went to the net and was able to pop in the loose puck for his second point of the game.
  • The Canucks also got some luck in this game, like the two-time 41-goal scorer DeBrincat missing a wide-open net off a Myers turnover. The Canucks immediately countered. Joshua chipped the puck up the boards to escape the zone, then moved in 3-on-2 with Sheldon Dries and Connor Garland. Thomas Chabot, like Sum 41, was in too deep, so Dries had all the time he needed to pick his spot to make it 4-0.
  • The Senators attempted a comeback but left it too late. They pulled one goal back when a deflected Chabots shot got Giroux in the gut and dropped to his stick with an open net. Then Nick "Texas" Holden bluffed Anthony Beauvillier with a fake shot, then went all-in past a Myers screen for a bad beat past Demko. 
  • It still seems crazy to me that the Canucks are playing Quinn Hughes so many minutes in a season that has been a bust for months. This was his ninth game in a row playing over 25 minutes and Hughes may well have eclipsed 30 minutes for the fifth time this season if not for a puck-over-the-glass penalty with two minutes left in the game. At that point, he might have hoisted the puck out of play just so he could sit down and take a break for a bit.
  • Down by two goals and on the power play, the Senators self-sabotaged. First, Giroux hacked Myers’ stick out of his hands with a two-handed slash, which, despite his Skywalkerian “Nooooooo,” was a blatantly obvious penalty. That put the two teams at 4-on-4, but then Chabot literally grabbed the stick out of Pettersson’s hands for an even more obvious penalty to give the Canucks a 4-on-3 power play. The Senators went from the power play to the penalty kill in 32 seconds flat.
  • The Senators pulled the goaltender for the extra attacker, giving the Canucks the chance to score a 4-on-4 power play goal, which has to be pretty rare. The Senators further shot themselves in the foot by botching the line change when goaltender Mads Sogaard came off the ice, as Tim Stützle was late jumping on, giving Brock Boeser a free path through the neutral zone. Boeser unselfishly passed the puck to Kuzmenko for the finish to make it 5-2.