The Filip Hronek era has begun in Vancouver.
For the first time since February 11 — a span of 18 games — Quinn Hughes did not lead the Vancouver Canucks in ice time. In fact, Hughes wasn’t even second in ice time on the Canucks as they faced the San Jose Sharks: he was third.
Leading the way instead was Filip Hronek, who finished with 24:25 in ice time in his first game with the Canucks. He was followed by his defence partner, Ethan Bear at 23:46. For the first time in over a month, Hughes played under 24 minutes, finishing just below Bear at 23:39.
It’s particularly surprising that Hughes didn’t see his minutes soar because Christian Wolanin, the only other left-shot defenceman in the lineup, suffered a lower-body injury in the first period and didn’t return to the game after playing just 1:49. That would typically result in Hughes eating up all of the extra minutes but instead Bear and Hronek — with Bear playing on his off side on the left — took up the call to arms.
This game even featured five power plays for the Canucks, with Hughes playing the bulk of those minutes, and he still finished third in ice time.
Sure, it helps that the Canucks had a comfortable three-goal lead going into the third period, giving them little reason to ride Hughes in the final frame, but it still seems significant that Hronek, in his very first game as a Canuck, led the team in ice time.
It’s also notable that Hronek wasn’t playing with Hughes in the first place. When it was first announced that the Canucks had traded for a top-four, right-shot defenceman, there was a natural assumption that the Canucks had acquired a partner for Hughes.
Given his skillset, however, it seems more likely that Hronek will carry a second pairing, spreading the wealth instead of loading up one top-heavy pairing. The tactic seemed to work on Thursday night, albeit against a pretty hapless San Jose Sharks team that currently sits dead last in the Western Conference.
With the caveat that he was facing a very bad opponent, Hronek looked fantastic for the Canucks. He was quick to the puck on retrievals, confident with his passes on the breakout, and smooth carrying the puck up the ice and along the blue line.
"I liked — especially in the first half — his swag," said head coach Rick Tocchet. "Quick plays, I thought he did really well. We were down to five, Wolanin got hurt right on his first shift, so that was kind of tough, so for him coming back after three weeks, playing with five D is not the greatest situation."
It’s easy to see why the Canucks’ management group was eager to add him, even if some might have disagreed on the timing and the cost of the deal.
At this point, the cost is moot. The deal is done and Hronek is a Canuck. And he made a good first impression when I watched this game.
- I’ll keep the James Reimer jokes to a minimum — I just about exhausted that well during the game on Twitter — but it is hilarious that by making only 14 saves on 21 shots, Reimer’s save percentage ended up as .666: the number of the Beast.
- Okay, so his save percentage was actually .667 with rounding, but we all know that math is a postmodern neo-Marxist lie from the pit of hell.
- Reimer’s teammates didn’t make it easy for him. Tomas Hertl committed a brutal turnover just a few minutes into the game, handing the puck directly to the red-hot J.T. Miller. Much like his newly clean-shaven face, Miller’s finish was super smooth, snapping the puck past Reimer’s blocker with the Canucks’ first shot of the game.
- Two minutes later, Andrei Kuzmenko made it 2-0. A quick neutral zone regroup by Bear sent the Canucks back into the offensive zone after the puck bounced over the blue line. Bear sent Elias Pettersson into the zone and he moved the puck to Anthony Beauvillier, who chipped the puck into space for Pettersson, who froze Reimer, then set up Kuzmenko. Like Batman finishing off a bad guy behind him, Kuzmenko casually went to the backhand to beat Reimer.
- The goal was Kuzmenko’s 35th of the season, passing Pavel Bure for the most ever by a Canucks rookie. Just ignore that Kuzmenko is 27 and too old to be eligible as a rookie for the Calder Trophy and that Bure was only 20 in his rookie year. Kuzmenko might not be Bure but he’s still pretty decent at this whole hockey thing.
- "Yes, it's good, but I need to be better," said Kuzmenko. "I need to a lot of score goals. Maybe 40, 45. I keep work."
- Pettersson’s assist gave him 90 points for the season and extended his point streak to ten games, the longest of his career. Boy, it sure would be neat if all of these milestones were happening in a better season.
- Miller has been so much better than he was at the start of the season, but there’s no excusing his decision to try to go for a line change while the Sharks were attacking on the rush. He peeled off towards the bench and literally ran into Tomas Hertl, his check. As Miller scrambled to get back into the play, Erik Karlsson set up the wide-open Hertl, who, unlike Miller, made no mistake.
- The Sharks pushed hard to tie the game late in the first period, but instead Dakota Joshua got the last-second goal. Literally, the last second. Bear had the puck in the defensive zone with seven seconds left, but a quick transition via Nils Åman and Conor Garland led to Joshua skating in all alone. Despite time running out at a rate of one second per second, Joshua didn’t panic, calmly cutting to the backhand to tuck the puck past Reimer with 0.4 seconds on the clock.
- "[Joshua] is a guy that there is another level for him," said Tocchet. "He's a guy that if he really does the right things — I don't want to put pressure on him — but he can score 20 goals in this league and he could be a really good penalty killer."
- If Hronek didn’t win over fans with his play on the ice, he did when he immediately went after Kevin Labanc for a dangerous crosscheck from behind on Pettersson. There’s no quicker way to make a new friend than to invoke the Friends theme song: I’ll be there for you.
- With Bear and Hronek together, Tyler Myers got the plum position of playing on Hughes’ right side. Ironically, Myers’ best play of the game came while temporarily on the left side with Bear on the ice. Myers pinched down the boards to pick up a loose puck, then sent a seeing-eye pass to Garland at the backdoor. Garland couldn’t see the pass coming through a maze of legs, but it fortunately hit him in the skate, giving him an easy tap-in goal.
- The Sharks got one back midway through the third period with a shorthanded goal. Kuzmenko couldn’t handle a pass along the boards and it deflected off his skate to Noah “CC-5576” Gregor, who moved the puck to Andrew Agozzino for a 2-on-1. Agozzino ripped the puck past Demko’s glove to make it 4-2.
- It took just 15 seconds for the Canucks to restore the three-goal lead. Vasily Podkolzin went racing up the ice — Podz-racing, if you will — cut around Hertl to gain the offensive zone, then sent the puck dog-whistling past Reimer’s ear. It was an absolutely wicked shot.
- A minute later, the Canucks made it six goals. Some strong work by Phil Di Giuseppe, Brock Boeser, and J.T. Miller down low led up to a point shot from Hughes. Di Giuseppe out-battled Nikolai Knyzhov to get just enough of the puck to tip it past Reimer, not that it was hard to get anything past Reimer on Thursday night.
- Reimer proved he really is holier than thou by letting in yet another goal before the night was done. Killing a penalty in the final minute, Di Giuseppe hustled to a loose puck to force it into the Sharks’ zone, then cut across the blue line and dropped the puck for a speeding Sheldon Dries. He cut to the net and roofed the backhand for goal number seven, coincidentally the same number of colours in the rainbow.
- Finally, a tap of the stick to John Garrett, who announced that this will be his last season as the colour commentator for the Canucks’ broadcasts. There has always been something so cozy and comfortable about his commentary, like you were watching the game with an old friend. But he also deserves a lot of credit for the amount of work he put into the job and how adept he was at flagging interesting moments in the game to highlight, as well as how quickly he can get something dead-on right before even the first replay has been shown. A great colour commentator makes every game a little bit more enjoyable to watch and Garrett was one of the best in the business. Canucks games won’t be the same without him.