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I Watched This Game: Canucks lose to Avalanche but it's probably fine

For the first time all season, the Vancouver Canucks have lost three games in a row.
The Vancouver Canucks couldn't quite finish their chances against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night.

For the first time all season, the Vancouver Canucks have lost three games in a row.

This is, of course, a tragedy, the end of the world, an utter disaster. It’s time to not only cancel the parade, but also start a full-on, tear-down rebuild — throw away the season, trade everyone, stock up on draft picks, and tank for the first-overall pick.

It’s a sign of just how bloody good the Canucks’ season has been that losing three games in a row feels calamitous.

There’s context to it, of course. Their last game was legitimately calamitous and it felt like a lot was riding on the Canucks bouncing back against the Colorado Avalanche, one of the favourites to come out of the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They needed to prove themselves against a tough opponent.

But that context needs context. The Canucks were playing on the second night of back-to-backs and it was their third game in four nights against a more well-rested Avalanche team. 

The truth is, the Canucks did bounce back. This was a very strong performance against one of the best teams in the NHL. It was a one-goal game until a late empty-netter; the real difference in the game is that the Avalanche had bounces go their way and the Canucks didn’t.

There was plenty to like about how the Canucks performed. At 5-on-5, the Canucks out-shot the Avalanche 22-to-16 and their penalty kill was perfect, killing off all three Avalanche power plays. They held Hart candidate Nathan MacKinnon off the scoreboard until an assist on the empty-net goal and held Norris candidate Cale Makar off the scoreboard entirely. 

Given the context of back-to-back games and the quality of their opponent, the Canucks deserve a lot of credit for how well they played.

“I thought we had a good game,” said head coach Rick Tocchet. “We had a lot of chances, we just didn’t put them in. It was a well-played game...I thought we deserved better.”

Let’s be clear: the Canucks have had some rough performances against top competition recently. But this game wasn’t one of them. This was a hard-fought game that could have gone either way. For most of the season, those types of games have gone the Canucks way, as they’ve gotten a bounce or an elite finish from one of their stars or an unbelievable save from Thatcher Demko. Maybe Canucks fans have gotten too used to being blessed by the great hockey god PDOseidon.

It didn’t go the Canucks’ way this time around. But it will again, especially if they play the way they did when I watched this game. 

  • Arshdeep Bains got into the lineup for his first NHL game with his father on-hand to watch as the players’ dads and other mentors joined the Canucks during the road trip. I wrote about the undrafted forward’s journey after he was named AHL All-Star Game MVP but you should also read Sonny Sachdeva’s excellent profile on Bains for Sportsnet, which digs deeper into his story as a Surrey kid who dreamed of playing for the Canucks.
  • Bains became just the fourth player of Punjabi descent to play in the NHL, though actually the third to play for the Canucks after Robin Bawa and Manny Malhotra. That seems fitting for the Canucks, who have long had a large contingent of fans of South Asian descent across the lower mainland. That makes it extra special for Bains, who has said, “I want to make this sport for everyone and if I can even help one or two kids to chase their dream that’d be special for me.”
  • “My dad was here, so that means the world to me,” said Bains. “He was a little emotional. A little bit of water in his eyes. That’s every kid’s dream, I think, to make their dad proud.”
  • Although his defensive reads look like they need some time to get up to NHL speed, Bains didn’t look out of place. He was on the ice for two goals against but he wasn’t to blame on either goal. Offensively, he created a couple of dangerous chances for himself and was achingly close to netting his first NHL goal but, more impressively, he created a couple of golden scoring chances for his centre, Teddy Blueger, from below the goal line. That’s a proof of concept for his game translating to the NHL.
  • There was a worrisome moment in the first period when Nikita Zadorov went down and stayed down, then signaled for the referees to blow the play dead, even though he didn’t seem to be in significant distress. Even more worrying, the referees obliged. Zadorov left the ice without putting weight on his right leg and it’s likely he had been cut by a skate, as they had to clean blood off the ice. Fortunately, Zadorov returned later in the first period and appeared to be fine, just with slightly less blood than before.
  • The Canucks’ lone goal of the game was at least a pretty one. It started with a great backcheck through the neutral zone by J.T. Miller to pick off the puck and the Canucks quickly turned up ice. Quinn Hughes sent a crisp pass to Brock Boeser as he slashed through the middle of the ice for the zone entry, drawing Jonathan Drouin with him. That opened up the right wing for Miller to attack with speed and Boeser flicked an adorable little saucer pass into his path. Miller made like he was going to cut across the top of the crease, then chipped the puck past Alexandar Georgiev’s glove to open the scoring.
  • A big reason why the Canucks lost this game is that they couldn’t finish on wide-open nets. It started with Pius Suter late in the first period, as he cleverly spun off his check as Ian Cole sent a puck towards the net and was rewarded with a rebound kicked right onto his stick. Unfortunately, Devon Toews checked his stick right as he shot, sending the puck skittering into the corner like a cockroach when the lights go on.
  • The Avalanche tied up the game on a fortunate bounce and a rare puck-tracking mistake by Thatcher Demko. Jack Johnson’s point shot missed the net but caromed off the back boards and then the back of the net to Ryan Johansen. Demko seemed to think the puck had hit the post rather than the boards and frantically looked underneath his pads, searching for something that was never there, like WMDs in Iraq. That left Johansen with all the room he needed to make it 1-1.
  • The real issue on the goal wasn’t Demko’s puck-tracking — that was an honest mistake. The bigger issue was Ilya Mikheyev’s awful turnover that preceded it. Hughes moved the puck along the boards to Mikheyev, who was under minimal pressure but still sent a wild pass cross-ice to no one, allowing Toews to pick up the loose puck and extend the offensive zone possession. That’s a major unforced error by Mikheyev, who is trending toward a healthy scratch at this point.
  • Hughes was unlucky not to get the go-ahead goal in the second period. He had one power play shot deflect off a stick and hit the underside of the crossbar, then he rang another shot off Georgiev’s mask from a tight angle. While he’s still been picking up a lot of assists, Hughes has now gone 11 games without a goal. 
  • Hughes’s goal drought has paralleled the Canucks’ struggles on the power play. They went 0-for-2 against the Avalanche, making them 1-for-24 over their last eight games. Like King Bob, I thought they’d figure it out by now.
  • “We’ve got to, instead of deferring, shoot the puck,” said Tocchet. “Be a little more decisive, get some pucks to the net.”
  • The Avalanche took the lead early in the third period on another fortunate bounce. Johansen’s shot deflected off Ian Cole’s glove as his arm was being lifted by Joel Kiviranta’s stick. That sent the puck barrel rolling like Starfox over Demko’s shoulder.
  • Elias Pettersson’s line with Elias Lindholm and Nils Höglander had a great game, particularly since they were largely matched up against Nathan MacKinnon. They created some of the Canucks’ best chances and even put one in the back of the net, though it was immediately called off for being contacted with a high stick because Höglander had climbed up a stepladder in order to reach the puck.
  • That line also led to two more misses on open net. First, Pettersson tipped a shot toward Lindholm at the backdoor but Samuel Girard got a piece of the puck, causing Lindholm to whiff with nothing but net in front of him, while Höglander couldn’t get all of the puck on his follow-up chance and Georgiev knocked it down. I haven’t seen someone whiff that badly on a swipe left since my friend could have matched with a model on Tinder but his finger slipped.
  • On the following faceoff, the Pettersson line once again created a wild scramble around the net. With Georgiev sitting on his rear end partly inside the net, the puck came out to Hughes and he swung it to Hronek with half the net available. Inexplicably, instead of immediately firing a quick shot to take advantage of the opening, Hronek saw the open net and wound up for a massive slap shot from the hashmarks like he was possessed by the spirit of Ridly Greig.  
  • Just take a quick shot! Or move your feet a little to change the angle on the two skaters charging out to block your shot and then shoot! Don’t blast a slap shot into the ankles of Artturi Lehkonen! He doesn’t want that! You don’t want that! Why would you do that? Why would you do any of that?  
  • The Canucks had a chance to score on a late power play. They didn’t. Then the Avalanche got a power play when Ian Cole used his magical hockey stick to mystically remove Ross Colton’s ability to skate by briefly touching his pants, as if he absorbed all his hockey ability into his stick like he was on the Monstars. Either that or it was, as Tocchet suggested, a dive.
  • “It sucks getting that penalty at the end,” said Tocchet. “That one sucked. I thought we were coming and I’m not sure that was a good penalty.”
  • While the Avalanche didn’t score, that took two minutes away from the Canucks’ attempted comeback. The Canucks had just a minute-and-a-half left after the penalty ended and never even got set up in the offensive zone to create a chance. Eventually, Lehkonen put the puck in the empty net. Game over, with no extra lives and no more tokens in your dixie cup. Just sadly waiting for the timer to count down while the question “Continue?” mocks you.