The Colorado Avalanche are the best team in hockey, a juggernaut who came into Wednesday night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks with a 45-13-5 record, easily the best record in the NHL. More than that, they were 25-3-3 at home — nearly unbeatable at Ball Arena.
The Canucks, on the other hand, are slightly less juggernautesque. They came in with a 30-26-8 record and had won just one of their last six games. They were also starting Jaroslav Halak, who had been blown up for 11 goals against on 26 shots in his last two starts.
Running with Halak against the NHL’s best team after Thatcher Demko played back-to-back games against a basement-dwelling team in the Buffalo Sabres on the weekend might have suggested the Canucks were punting this game — accepting that a loss was seemingly inevitable and preparing themselves for their difficult schedule to come.
Instead of punting, the Canucks repeatedly ran the ball up the gut, to extend the football metaphor. They didn’t capitulate to the Avalanche but instead played one of their most complete games of the season. They went toe-to-toe with the best in the West and flat-out out-played them.
“It’s the best game I’ve been part of with this team,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau. “We used the word committed before the game and every one of them was committed."
What was impressive is that the Canucks didn’t stymie the Avalanche by sitting back and playing a conservative, overly-defensive game in an attempt to smother the high-powered offence. That approach likely would have backfired.
Instead, the Canucks were exactly as aggressive as Boudreau wants them to be — forechecking hard to prevent clean breakouts, stepping up in the neutral zone to make zone entries difficult, and driving to the middle of the ice to create chances. They didn’t go into a defensive shell and hope for the best but, to put into hockey clichés, played their game.
“It seems like the harder the challenge, we play better sometimes,” said Miller. “That’s the ballsiest effort we’ve had this season.”
It was one of those games that reminds you that when the Canucks are on — when they play a full 60 minutes with every player giving their all — they can compete with any team in the league.
“You go around and talk about the teams we’ve beaten and we’ve beaten pretty well — at least once — every really good team in the league,” said Boudreau. “They’re capable of doing it when they play the way they did tonight.”
It was also one of those games that makes you wonder why can’t play like this more consistently, but let’s stay positive for the moment.
A major part of the win was a solid performance in goal for Halak, a bounceback from his struggles in recent weeks. The team in front of him was definitely better defensively but he still came up with some big saves, stopping 32 of 33 shots.
Halak has been put through the ringer recently, whether with his significant struggles on the ice, or trade rumours off the ice. With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror, Halak expressed relief after the game, saying, “At least now that it’s done, I can focus on hockey.”
“It's been shitty, you know,” said Miller about what Halak’s gone through. “We feel so good that he could, first of all, play the way he did today. I mean, he was an absolute rock. He was on. You could just tell this morning. He was just on this morning and he had that aura about him that he was going to be a difference-maker today and he played awesome.”
“It's been a long year,” he added. “It feels like every time he goes in, we play like crap.”
The Canucks didn’t play like crap when I watched this game.
- Miller’s line with Tanner Pearson and Conor Garland was put in the unenviable position of matching up against one of the best lines in hockey: Valeri Nichushkin, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen. At least, it would be unenviable for most people, but Miller seemed delighted, saying, “That’s why I play — I want to be on against those guys...I know it brings the best out of me.”
- “We understand what that line's capable of and we didn't care if we touched the puck tonight — me, Tanner, and Garly,” said Miller. “We talked and said if we can shut them down — you're not going to completely shut them down — but if we just really bear down and make it hard on them, we have a chance to win.”
- They did touch the puck, by the way. In fact, when Miller was matched up against MacKinnon at 5-on-5, the Canucks out-shot the Avalanche 5-to-3 and out-scored them 1-to-0. They were bearing down harder than a breakdancing bear.
- Right from the opening puck drop, Jaroslav Halak was more locked in than Sterling Wesley, which is a very niche reference to Teenage Bounty Hunters on Netflix, which you should all watch (this blog is not sponsored by Netflix). Like sufficient trees on a mountainside, Halak repeatedly stopped the Avalanche, particularly on the Avalanche’s five power plays. Like Snoop Dogg's turtleneck, his glovehand robbery on Nazem Kadri was, like, one of his best.
- It’s a little bit ridiculous that the Avalanche had such a tilted advantage on power plays, with five to the Canucks’ one. It’s especially frustrating because the Canucks were robbed of a power play in the first period when Andrew Cogliano kneed Vasily Podkolzin. Oliver Ekman-Larsson immediately challenged Cogliano, but Cogliano is the only one who dropped the gloves and wrestled Ekman-Larsson to the ice. Somehow, Ekman-Larsson got the only roughing penalty and the penalties offset for 4-on-4.
- Bo Horvat seemed to get frustrated by the Canucks’ parade to the penalty box and gave the officials a piece of his mind after Quinn Hughes took his second slashing call of the game, which definitely looked more like a stickcheck than a slash. Either that or Horvat noticed someone falling asleep in the crowd and was incensed that anyone could drift off during such an intense game.
- Travis Dermott played his first game as a Canuck and had a quietly superb game defensively on a pairing with Brad Hunt. He didn’t do anything flashy, just used his skating to keep plays to the outside and calmly break the puck out when he had the chance. He did some nice work on the penalty kill too. It was a nice little debut.
- It was also Brad Richardson’s first game with the Canucks this season after being claimed off waivers and he also quietly had a solid game. Like Dermott, he played some key minutes on the penalty kill, and he went 5-for-8 on faceoffs, while getting 15:25 in ice time, his highest of the season. The veteran centre is going to get a bigger role in Vancouver than he did with the Calgary Flames.
- Elias Pettersson had a stupendous game defensively, repeatedly disrupting the Avalanche like a series of small explosions to dislodge smaller amounts of snow before they can build up to a dangerous amount. Here are a few of his best: a great stick to break up a zone entry while covering for Hughes, a superb backcheck on Logan O’Connor, and a great read and diving play to poke a puck out of the zone during a threatening possession by the Avalanche.
- Beyond the defensive game, he and Brock Boeser were buzzing all around the offensive zone, creating some dangerous chances. It finally paid off in the third period and it started with another defensive play by Pettersson to pick off a pass inside the Avalanche blue line. He immediately swung the puck to Boeser in the middle, who sniped the puck top corner with the most wicked release since, well, Wicked, the original cast recording of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.
- The Avalanche seemed stunned by the goal and they were double-stunned two minutes later. Garland tipped an Ekman-Larsson pass out to Pearson for a 2-on-1. His shot was stopped by Darcy Kuemper, but he couldn’t snag the rebound, and, like a guy whose credit card didn’t work the first time, Miller got two swipes and it went through the second time.
- I had to laugh at this sequence from Tyler Myers. He snapped his stick along the boards, so Miller offered his own. Myers seemed to consider it for a moment, then decide he didn’t need it and, honestly, he was right. He immediately bulldozed Nathan MacKinnon to the ice, no stick necessary.
- The Avalanche finally scored on their fourth power play of the game. Halak stopped the initial tip but Kadri cut to his forehand to roof the rebound. That made the score 2-1 and Canucks fans a wee bit nervous.
- They needn’t have worried. The Canucks held off the Avalanche like a series of harrowingly-installed fences, including killing off one more penalty, until one last glove save by Halak on Mikko Rantanen led to a steal by Pearson, a pass to Miller, a relay to Horvat, and an empty-net goal.
- Halak allowed himself a small celebration after Horvat sealed the win. A very, very small celebration.
- “We’re in it. We have something to really play for,” said Miller. “Right when you start to think you’re out of it, you’re going to put yourself out of it, but there’s none of that in our room. We believe in here.”
- Finally, we have to address a controversial moment midway through the third period. Matthew Highmore raced to a loose puck to poke it out over the blue line, then got hit hard by Kurtis MacDermid. Highmore stayed down for a moment, then left the ice under his own power, but was subsequently sent to the quiet room under the NHL’s concussion protocol. MacDermid did not receive a penalty on the play.
- Honestly, I’m on the fence about this one. MacDermid hit through Highmore’s body, didn’t elevate into Highmore’s head, and didn’t throw out an elbow. At the same time, he definitely made contact with Highmore’s head. As the NHL calls the rule, it could go either way, as the rule book does say that a played attempting “to hit squarely through the opponent’s body” is a mitigating circumstance.
- Boudreau, on the other hand, had a pretty clear point of view on the hit and could be spotted on the bench yelling, “Why is our guy in concussion protocol if he didn’t get hit in the f***ing head?”
- Maybe every hit to the head should be a penalty, as it is in international hockey, but that’s not the rule in the NHL. Honestly, concussion spotters should send more players to the quiet room not fewer — they dropped the ball when Evgeny Kuznetsov was hit in the head by Tyler Myers and not only didn’t go into concussion protocol but was right back on the ice for the power play and scored a goal. It was the right call for Highmore to head to the quiet room, whether or not it was a penalty that sent him there.