For the first twenty minutes of this hockey game, the Vancouver Canucks looked like a changed team.
It seemed like the new year had given Vancouver a new team — a team that was playing with fire and passion, as well as structure; a team that could hem the opposition in with a confident and crisp cycle game; a team that could create chance after chance and wasn’t afraid to get to the front of the net.
The Canucks weren’t just playing well; they were buzzing. They were clearly and distinctly the better team and it didn’t even look particularly close.
Then the second period hit and everything fell apart.
“I thought the first period was as good a period as we’ve played,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau. “It’s like as soon as something bad happens to this team, the adversity, we cannot handle it.”
Any poise they had with the puck vanished, as the Canucks gave the puck away like it was a free t-shirt. The dangerous cycle game in the offensive zone was gone. All the fire and passion with which they came out in the first period was extinguished and the Canucks looked lifeless, like they’d been visited by vampires in the intermission.
Welcome to the 2023 Canucks, same as the 2022 Canucks.
Tyler Myers wasn’t afraid to give a blunt review of the Canucks’ previous game, suggesting that was the reason they came out so fired up in the first period.
“I thought our whole game in Calgary was shit,” said Myers. “We didn’t play well there. We came out in this one with the response we wanted, but we came off the gas again. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened. They gave a little bit of a push and we have to know how to handle it. We have to show some maturity and when it’s time to get a puck deep, we’ve got to get a puck deep.”
Myers was one of the offenders when it came to that immaturity with the puck, committing one of three ugly turnovers that had Boudreau shaking his head.
“We keep giving them goals,” said Boudreau. “You keep giving them passes and putting pucks on the tape, you’re not going to win.”
“We did this one to ourselves if I’m being honest,” said captain Bo Horvat. “Every turnover resulted in a goal tonight and that was the story of the game.”
It was at least part of the story of the game. The other part was that the Canucks simply didn’t respond after the turnovers.
In the third period, when they should have been pushing for a comeback, the Canucks had just two shots on goal until a late power play. Those two shots came from 40 feet and 99 feet away from the Islanders' net.
“I looked up with two minutes left in the third and we had 11 shots since the start of the second,” said Myers. “That’s not good enough.”
It was observed by a fellow scribe in the press box that it appeared as if the team had quit. Call it quiet quitting, as the team went through the motions in the second and third periods but really didn’t do their jobs. In a way, they were stealing from the team’s billionaire owner with how they played the final 40 minutes.
If you look at it that way, the Canucks were committing class warfare in this game — nay, this entire season — and should be seen as heroes of the working class. “Viva la revolución,” I whispered to myself as I watched this game.
- It looked like all of the Canucks’ offensive zone possession in the first period was going to be for naught until the captain came through in the final minutes. Brock Boeser came up with the puck down low and fed Oliver Ekman-Larsson, whose point shot was given a new direction by Bo Horvat with a nifty tip that sent the puck bouncing like the dialogue in a Sorkin walk-and-talk past Ilya Sorokin.
- That was goal number 27 for Horvat, matching his career high prior to last season. Those 27 goals came in 82 games — this was game 37.
- As much as the Canucks controlled the first period, Spencer Martin still had to make some big saves. In the final minute, Martin maintained the lead with an absolutely absurd save on Zach Parise, lunging across with his blocker and stick stacked on top of his right pad to take away what seemed like a sure goal. If first-period Martin was on the Titanic, it never would have sunk with how good he was at bailing out.
- The turnovers started with an unlikely candidate: Quinn Hughes. The normally sure-handed Hughes sent a cross-ice pass in the neutral zone to nobody, allowing the Islanders to quickly counter while Brock Boeser and his linemates went for an ill-timed line change. The Canucks still had enough players back but both Tyler Myers and the back-checking Dakota Joshua went to the same man, turning a 3-on-3 into a 2-on-1. Ross Johnston slipped a pass through Hughes to Aatu Raty, who changed the angle with a quick stickhandle and snapped the puck past Martin.
- The Islanders took the lead on the power play with Myers in the box. Ryan Pulock blasted a slap shot through traffic and Jean-Gabriel Pageau cleaned up the rebound, with neither Hughes nor J.T. Miller able to tie up Pageau’s stick. Seems a good time to remind you that the Canucks are still on-pace for the worst penalty kill in NHL history, sitting at 67.6% at the bottom of the league.
- “I think once they got that power play goal, I think the momentum shifted,” said Ethan Bear. “That’s where we’ve got to be better and simplify our game.”
- Instead of simplifying, Myers gave the puck away up the middle to Mathew Barzal, who walked in and put the puck off the post and in to make it 3-1. To be fair, handing the puck to the other team is pretty easy to do, so, in a way, Myers actually was simplifying his game.
- Despite the turnovers, the Canucks weren’t out of the game yet, as a power play goal late in the second period gave them life. Once again it was Horvat, who hammered home a handsome saucer pass from Miller for his 28th goal of the season, keeping him tied with Alex Ovechkin for the third-most goals in the NHL.
- That meant the Canucks were only down by one heading into the third period, but yet another turnover killed the vibe. This time, it was Bear, who skated back into his own zone pursued by two forecheckers and very simply turned and handed the puck to one of them. Well, he was trying to pass to Boeser, but the puck went to the wrong Brock, landing on the stick of Brock Nelson, who fed Anders Lee, who turned and went bar down on Martin.
- “I just tried to make a nice play to the middle,” said Bear. “I should’ve just went up the wall with it and just got it out of the zone. That’s on me. There was another guy behind him and I didn’t see that guy.”
- It’s a shame, really, because Bear otherwise had a strong game, moving the puck well on the breakout and jumping up when appropriate. The Canucks out-shot the Islanders 10-to-4 when Bear was on the ice at 5-on-5 and shot attempts were even more skewed at 23-to-4. But that turnover was simply unbearable.
- “It’s not because they’re trying to do too much,” said a frustrated Boudreau. “The three defencemen had absolute full control of the puck — they just gave it away.”
- Casey Cizikas made it 5-2 off the rush. Barzal cut diagonally through the neutral zone, drawing Luke Schenn to the middle of the ice. That left the left wing wide open for Cizikas, who took Barzal’s pass and put the puck directly into the top corner over Martin’s glove, which honestly was a bit of a theme. The Islanders' shots were all pinpoint accurate but they were also all seemingly zeroing in on the same spot. Is pre-scouting starting to find the holes in Martin's game now that he's no longer the backup?
- Pageau added an empty-netter when the Canucks pulled Martin for the extra attacker on a late power play. Given what Boudreau has said about the team needing to earn the goalie pull, I’m honestly surprised that Martin left the net but perhaps no one wanted to further agitate J.T. Miller.
- Bear had some interesting comments after the game, when asked about whether it’s daunting to be near the bottom of the NHL standings after playing for a Carolina Hurricanes team that was at the top. “It’s not really daunting because I know what Carolina does so well. It’s something that they’re working on every single day and every single practice — it’s their attention to details. If I look from Edmonton and compare them to Carolina — just the way they prepare themselves — it’s a night and day difference. For us, we need to make sure we’re prepared every practice and every game to get better. That’s the mentality you’ve got to have.”
- Maybe this game was karmic retribution for teasing that they might wear the black skate jersey for 90's night and then coming out wearing their regular home blues. You can't tease the hockey gods like that, Canucks — it never goes well.