It’s been a long time since a game between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins was meaningful in any way other than in the heads of Canucks fans.
As much as Canucks fans like to talk about “Game 8” and Cody Hodgson’s bardown slap shot, the truth is that Bruins fans didn’t much care. Why would they? They had the Stanley Cup.
Then the Canucks slipped into irrelevancy, while the Bruins faltered briefly for a couple of seasons but quickly worked their way back to being a Stanley Cup contender. Their meetings over the last decade, even if they sparked memories of 2011’s clash for fans, didn’t really matter.
Thursday night’s game in Boston, however, was a marquee match-up between the top two teams in the NHL. First place in the NHL versus second place in the NHL; first in the West versus first in the East. This was one of the biggest games of the season, with some suggesting it could be a preview of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final. This was a game that mattered.
Someone forgot to tell the Canucks.
The Bruins, coming off a disappointing loss to the Calgary Flames a couple of nights earlier, came out flying, led by their best players. The Canucks’ best players, on the other hand, played lacklustre, uninspired hockey.
Elias Pettersson and Elias Lindholm were on the ice for all four goals against, with Pettersson looking particularly off his game, to the point that he got briefly benched in the second period. J.T. Miller seemingly tried to do too much, leading to turnovers and blown defensive assignments. Brock Boeser was completely invisible. Thatcher Demko allowed four goals on just 25 shots.
Even Quinn Hughes, who has controlled play so reliably all season, was sloppy. He was shaky defensively, couldn’t move the puck out cleanly in transition, and even struggled to hold the offensive blue line, something he normally does better than anyone else in the NHL.
“It’s a big game. A lot of eyes were on us tonight,” said Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet. “They didn’t play well their last game, their coach kind of called them out, and they showed up. And we just made some stupid mistakes.”
The Canucks gave up two shorthanded goals on their first two power plays of the game, then two more goals 15 seconds apart in the first minute of the second period. It was a hot mess.
“We gave them four goals,” said Tocchet bluntly. “Then you’re chasing the game.”
It was clear that Tocchet wasn’t happy with his top players.
“They weren’t good tonight, some guys, and they haven’t been good, frankly, the last…I mean, these are big-time games,” said Tocchet, talking his way around calling anyone out by name. “[Brad] Marchand and [David] Pastrnak, those are great players and they showed up. We’ve got to have that kind of thing. Now listen, it’s our first loss in I don’t know how many games, so I can’t get too critical. But these are big games where you’d like to see a little bit better from some guys.”
I would have also liked to see a little bit better from some guys when I watched this game.
- Massachusetts native Conor Garland had the team over for lobster rolls the night before, which became the story of the game on Canucks Twitter, with suggestions that bad lobster was to blame for their terrible performance. Or worse: it wasn’t lobster at all.
- It looked like this would be a completely different game from the first shift, as The Good Job Boys kicked things off with Teddy Blueger and Conor Garland springing Dakota Joshua on a breakaway 12 seconds into the game. Joshua got grabbed from behind for what could have been a penalty shot but was instead a two-minute power play — a golden opportunity to grab an early lead.
- Then the second shift of the game happened.
- Thatcher Demko had the puck behind his own net as the power play regrouped and forced a pass up the wall that Charlie Coyle picked off. Brad Marchand went to the front of the net, skating past both Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller, neither of whom thought, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t let the NHL’s active leader in career shorthanded goals go to the net completely unchecked.” Coyle centered; Marchand scored.
- “I think Thatcher could have made a better play but after that, we had one extra guy,” said Tocchet. “Everybody hustled back, you take a guy. You guys saw it, we leave a guy in front, a great hockey player.”
- Beyond the goal against, the power play didn’t even create a single shot on goal. Like Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, it was bad. I decided to put as much effort into this pop culture reference as the Canucks put into this game.
- The Canucks’ second power play was no better. It again failed to get a single shot and again gave up a shorthanded goal. In fact, their power play was so bad that the scorekeepers took away a shot. The score bug credited the Canucks with five shots at the beginning of the power play; by the end of the power play, the scorekeepers had corrected it to four shots.
- The power play was simply too slow to move the puck and the Bruins’ aggressive penalty killing disrupted their passing lanes every time. Miller turned the puck over to Coyle, who sprung Danton Heinen on a breakaway that shouldn’t have happened. Pettersson had more steps on Heinen than Ciara but took a terrible route on the backcheck and Heinen broke away, avoided Pettersson’s swinging stick check, and roofed the puck.
- Here’s Heinen and Pettersson when Coyle got the puck. How does this turn into a breakaway?
- Here’s the really stupid thing: Coyle’s steal was dumb luck. The only reason Coyle’s stick was in position to pick off Miller’s pass is because Hughes skated through his stick trying to disrupt him and give Miller more room. When Miller tried a backhand pass instead of skating into the open space created by Hughes’ subtle interference, Coyle’s stick just happened to be right where it needed to be.
- When the Canucks got a third power play in the second period, it was time to send a message: the second unit started the power play and managed to not give up a shorthanded goal. Even better, when the first unit came out later in the power play, they managed to get a single shot on goal. Progress!
- The Canucks needed to come out with some urgency in the second period to get back into the game. Instead, they gave up two goals in the opening minute. That’s the last time they let Hank Hill give the inspiring intermission speech.
- The 3-0 goal was mostly just insanely bad luck but it could have been avoided if Pettersson was in the shooting lane where he was supposed to be. He got caught puck-watching and could only reach in his stick to disrupt Pastrnak’s shot, causing the puck to take a ridiculous route to the net: off Pettersson’s stick, off a falling Morgan Geekie’s stick, off Demko’s left pad, off Tyler Myers’ left skate, and finally off Myers’ stick. It was a Happy Gilmore putt of a goal.
- The most absurd part of the goal wasn’t even the circuitous path of the puck; it was that Pastrnak broke his stick on the play and the tumbling lower half of his stick went flying so high in the air that it didn’t come down and hit the ice until after the puck was already in the net. Considering the puck literally took two-and-a-half seconds to cross the line from when Pastrnak shot it, that’s wild.
- The 4-0 goal wasn’t bad luck; it was just bad. Ian Cole made a bad pinch, then Pettersson once gain took a terrible route on the backcheck, chasing James van Reimsdyk, who was already being gapped-up by Myers. Pettersson needed to keep his head on a swivel like Beetlejuice and pick up Pavel Zacha, who took van Reimsdyk’s pass for a breakaway and snapped the puck past Demko’s blocker.
- “Credit to them, they stuck to their game,” said Hughes. “But also, we can’t give them two shorthanded goals and then the two goals that we gave them in the second are kind of our own mistakes. They didn’t do anything necessarily to win it, it was just us shooting ourselves in the foot.”
- Pettersson’s mistakes earned him a partial benching or at least more limited ice time. He played just 3:18 in the second period and finished the game with 14:17 in ice time, his lowest ice time of the season. That comes right after he made an impression in a match-up role against the Carolina Hurricanes; he was matched up against Pastrnak's line to start the game but it did not last and he won't get used in that role in the future if he makes similar mistakes.
- Pettersson's ice time was limited; Miller played even less, finishing the game with 13:54 in ice time, his second-lowest ice time of the season. It's worth noting that the Canucks have back-to-back early games on the weekend. Pettersson and Miller's ice time could be partly accountability for their poor play and partly resting them in a game that was a lost cause.
- The one line that truly showed up was the Good Job Boys. Garland, Joshua, and Blueger were easily the Canucks’ best line and created some of the team’s only chances of the game. But the Canucks are not going to beat an elite team with just their third line.
- The Miller line created a little bit of noise in the second period, sneaking some pucks through Bruins goaltender Linus Ullmark. They just couldn’t get them into the net, which is kind of the point of the whole sport.
- Nils Höglander did put a puck in the net. Trouble is, he did so by swatting in the puck with a high stick, which isn’t allowed. Höglander needed to be more patient and allow his stick to sober up before he hit the puck.
- The third period was remarkably uneventful, as the Bruins put the game into park, threw on the emergency brake, and put a car boot on it for good measure. The NHL’s nine-minute highlight pack for the game, which devoted around four minutes each to the first and second periods, gave the third period 38 seconds, which consisted of one save by Thatcher Demko, a replay of the same save, and the final horn. That’s all that third period deserved.
- Some might get worried about this result, seeing it as a measuring stick game. The truth is, the Canucks have been pretty good this season in measuring stick games. Against the nine other teams currently in the top ten in points percentage, the Canucks are 9-4-1. They’ve won both of their games against the third-place Florida Panthers this season and have had statement wins against other tough teams like the New York Rangers. Also, they just had 12 straight games without a regulation loss. This game sucked but it’s not the end of the world.
- “It was a good test for us and they were probably looking at it the same way but it’s one game of 82,” said Hughes. “When we beat Carolina or beat the Rangers or other good teams, we don’t look at it like we’ve done anything great, and for tonight, we’ve got to refocus tomorrow and just move on. We still have three games on this road trip that we’d like to close out.”