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I Watched This Game: Canucks head into All-Star break with easy win over Blue Jackets

"It’s not about the wins and losses, it’s about the process: playing the right way and finding our identity as a hockey club.”
The Vancouver Canucks had no issues beating the last-place Columbus Blue Jackets. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

Technically, the Vancouver Canucks’ 2022-23 season doesn’t end until April 13 in Arizona.

But the Canucks’ season really came to a close on January 27, 2023 with a win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

Certainly, one could argue that the Canucks’ season ended a lot sooner, as it became clear rather quickly that the Canucks had little chance of actually making the playoffs — something they said would be a “big disaster” heading into the season. But the official signal that the season is over was the Canucks shutting down Ilya Mikheyev to have knee surgery.  

Teams that still have hope to make the playoffs don’t shut down a top-six forward who is playing through injury, even if it would be the right thing to do. That’s what teams do when they know the current season is over and they’re planning for the next season.

General manager Patrik Allvin acknowledged that fact and was blunt in his assessment of the team.

“What are we, 27th in the league and really bad in a lot of underlying metrics,” said Allvin. “We have a long way to go here. For me, it’s not about the wins and losses, it’s about the process: playing the right way and finding our identity as a hockey club.”

The Canucks are, indeed, 27th in the league and really bad in a lot of underlying metrics. They’re 25th in the NHL in score-adjusted corsi percentage at 5-on-5 and 26th in expected goals percentage, both according to Natural Stat Trick. Also, while it’s not an “underlying metric,” they’re dead last on the penalty kill, on pace to set a new NHL record at 65.5%.

Given that it seemed apparent long before Friday’s game that this season was a wash, one might ask why the Canucks didn’t shut down Mikheyev sooner, giving him more time to recover ahead of next season, while also mitigating the risk of suffering further injury by playing through a torn ACL.

In fact, Allvin was asked that. He said that Mikheyev wanted to keep playing and that it was a decision made between him, the Canucks, and the medical staff. Is that an adequate explanation? 

One might also wonder why the Canucks decided to hold a press conference late at night after a game to announce the end of Mikheyev’s season, instead of announcing it Saturday morning or waiting until after the All-Star break. The timing is more than a little odd.

“We knew this was coming,” admitted Elias Pettersson. “It sucks. He’s a big part of this group. He works hard and obviously ever since he came here has been great for us. So it's very unfortunate, but I mean, you got to think of the future too and be ready for next season.”

Tyler Myers acknowledged the same thing Allvin did about what this meant for the rest of this season.

“I mean, him saying that, it’s not like it’s a complete shock to us. It’s been a rough go,” said Myers, then said that it doesn’t change much for the rest of the season. “You go into games battling to win the game. As players, as coaches, as management, we’re all competitive and you want to win. 

“But yeah, there’s a lot of focus on tweaking some things. It's not complicated. We just got to do more of it to where it becomes more of a habit for us to play that way.”

The one positive for Mikheyev is that he scored a goal — the 100th point of his career — on one of the luckiest bounces you’ll ever see in a hockey game. Perhaps the hockey gods had mercy on him, knowing it was his final game of the season, because Gord knows luck wasn’t on his side before Friday night.

Also, in case you didn’t know, the king of the hockey gods is named Gord. I watched this game.

  • The Columbus Blue Jackets look exactly as bad as you would expect the worst team in the NHL to look. It’s fair to question how intentional their tank job this season has been. After all, they just signed Johnny Gaudreau to a seven-year contract worth $9.75 million per year and have yet to acquire any additional draft picks in the first two rounds of the draft, but some key injuries and a brutal start to the season has the team fully embracing the tank and they’re playing like it.
  • The Canucks were clearly the better team on Friday night but how much does that mean? In his first three games as head coach, Rick Tocchet has seen his team dominate the two worst teams in the NHL and get equally dominated by the top team in the Pacific Division — how is he supposed to evaluate the team based on that?
  • Bo Horvat had the first four-assist game of his career, evidently trying to catch up to his goal total. His first assist was a pure hustle play on the penalty kill, outracing Adam Boqvist for a poorly-placed pass. He made like Phillip Michael Gerard and one-armed the puck to Elias Pettersson for a breakaway. A quick backhand-to-forehand deke gave Pettersson all the room he needed to tuck the puck past Joonas Korpisalo.
  • The Blue Jackets have one of the worst power plays in the NHL but it was more than a match for the Canucks’ atrocious penalty kill, scoring twice on four opportunities. Less than a minute after Pettersson’s shorthanded goal, Kirill Marchenko was given the entire middle of the ice to work with and deftly tipped a Boqvist point shot off the ice and over Collin Delia.
  • The Canucks got their own power play working after going 0-for-16 in their last four games. Quinn Hughes gave the Canucks the 2-1 lead with a point shot that had no business going in, but he got a handy screen from penalty killer Eric Robinson, who didn’t so much try to block the shot as get out of the way, almost as if he didn’t want to get hit by a puck for a team in 32nd place.
  • Mikheyev put the Canucks ahead 3-1 with a series of absurd bounces. His wrist shot went off Mathieu Olivier’s skate, then off the back boards, then nearly went right through the crease. Instead, it barely deflected off the side of the net so that it hit the toe of Korpisalo’s skate and went into the net. Unfortunately, Mikheyev didn’t call bank, so Michael Jordan won the Big Mac.  
  • “Everyone on the bench was pretty excited. You saw him celebrate the way he did, it was a good moment for him,” said Myers. “We all knew it was his last game, we wanted to battle for him.”
  • Mikheyev nearly had another goal in the second period when Conor Garland set him up with an open net at the backdoor, but Gavin Bayreuther spoiled the moment with a last-second stick check. I guess no one told Bayreuther it was Mikheyev’s last game of the season.
  • Dakota Joshua has enjoyed the arrival of Rick Tocchet. He’s played up the lineup and tallied a point in all three games under Tocchet so far. He got some of Mikheyev’s residual luck on the rush in the third period as he tried to set up Brock Boeser in front only to have the puck deflect in off the skate of Boqvist to make it 4-1.
  • Elias Pettersson finally got his first power play goal of the season with a wrist shot that snuck through Korpisalo midway through the third period. Or did he? Andrei Kuzmenko appeared to wait as long as he possibly could before banging the puck in but, to my eye, that puck stopped with just a sliver of it still on the goal line. Kuzmenko pointed to Pettersson to give him credit and it has been scored as Pettersson’s goal, but I’m not convinced. I think that’s Kuzmenko’s goal.
  • Pettersson's reaction at the bench — jokingly slamming his stick on the boards, pointing to Kuzmenko, and holding his fingers apart to show how much of the puck was on the line — suggests that he agrees with me, but Kuzmenko could clearly be seen saying, "It's not my goal! No! It's your goal!"
  • Canucks fans chanted “Bruce, there it is!” after both the 4-1 and the 5-1 goal, which suggests they won’t be getting over the team’s treatment of Bruce Boudreau any time soon. Perhaps, with Kuzmenko signed for two more years, it can be transitioned to a “Kuz, there it is!” chant in the future.
  • The Blue Jackets added one more power play goal late in the game, with Marchenko banking the puck in off Delia from below the goal line. The Canucks’ penalty kill is at 55.2% in their last ten games and is now at 65.5% for the season. Incredible.
  • This was one of J.T. Miller’s strongest games of the season, with the caveat that it was against the Blue Jackets. The Canucks out-attempted the Blue Jackets 26-to-5 when he was on the ice at 5-on-5 and out-shot them 15-to-4. Even though the Canucks didn’t get a goal when he was on the ice at 5-on-5, it was a much better game from a process standpoint for Miller.
  • “I thought Miller had a really good hockey game,” said Tocchet. “I don't know what he played, 17-18 minutes [Ed. note: 18:49], and I just think the minutes and if we play a short shift, responsible game, we can hang in.”