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I Watched This Game: Columbus can't cope, Canucks complete cliff-hanging comeback

It was a thrilling game that maybe shouldn't have been played at all.
The Vancouver Canucks extended their winning streak to five games with a 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

On Tuesday night, the Vancouver Canucks were utterly fantastic, pulling off a massive third period comeback that would have been impossible to imagine from the fragile team of five games ago.

It was a thrilling game where the Canucks’ best players truly were their best players, providing the type of entertainment and catharsis that Canucks fans have been seeking all season.

Yes, it was a great game. But it probably shouldn’t have been played at all.

The Canucks had three positive COVID-19 test results before the start of the game and got one more during the game, with Tucker Poolman abruptly pulled off the ice with five minutes remaining in the first period to join Luke Schenn, Juho Lammikko, and Brad Hunt in the NHL’s COVID protocol. 

Playing the game, as entertaining as it was, could be something the Canucks regret in the future, particularly if they happen to have the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant, which recently landed in B.C. If it spreads amongst the Canucks or even the Blue Jackets, it could cause some serious complications for the NHL season, not to mention risking the health of those who come into contact with players, coaches, and staff.

There are some who might argue that, because the players are vaccinated, they should be allowed to play even after testing positive for COVID-19, as long as they feel healthy. It’s true that the players, who are all young, healthy, and vaccinated, are likely to only experience mild symptoms but it’s important to remember that they may be in contact with unvaccinated children or other vulnerable people. Stopping the spread is still vital.

“It’s scary,” said Bo Horvat. “It just feels like deja vu all over again. First and foremost, we want to make sure everybody’s healthy and hopefully the vaccine is working and they’re not feeling too sick.”

Head coach Bruce Boudreau said that the idea of postponing the game never came up.

“Initially it was one guy and then two guys [test positive]. If it would have been like the Carolina team had four guys all at once and then they can make that decision,” said Boudreau. “But it never came up, I didn’t think it was ever going to happen.

“I’m sort of glad they didn’t call the game.”

If that last bit seems a little glib, it’s not a head coach’s job to decide on COVID protocols; it’s his job to win hockey games. And, to be fair to Boudreau, he doesn’t really know what the Caanucks went through last season.

It’s not just that Boudreau wasn’t in Vancouver during their COVID-19 outbreak last season — he wasn’t even coaching during the pandemic. Boudreau was fired by the Minnesota Wild partway through the 2019-20 season, on February 14, one month before the league shut down the season.

This is Boudreau’s first time coaching during a COVID-19 outbreak, so it’s not surprising that it’s a little unfamiliar to him and that it took his players raising their concerns in order to cancel the morning skate.

“We talked collectively as a group and the guys, with what happened last year, just felt that it was unnecessary for us to go on the ice and put ourselves at risk in the morning until our test results came back,” said Horvat. “I really appreciate Bruce hearing our side of the story and what happened last year and making it a no-skate.”

The Canucks were apparently comfortable enough playing in the game. That one seemed to be out of their hands, as they were following the NHL’s protocol. It’s not as if the NHL’s protocol has ever let the Canucks down before, he said sarcastically.  

Because the NHL decided to play this game, I watched this game.

  • Dang it all, this game was so good. Sure, because I honestly feel the game shouldn’t have been played, it was a total guilty pleasure, like Aqua’s “Cartoon Heroes,” but it was a pleasure nonetheless. 
  • The game itself was a tale of two cities. Not just Vancouver and Columbus, but the best of times and the worst of times. The worst came first, as the Canucks came out flatter than the prairies in the first period and found themselves down by three goals heading into the first intermission. Everything after that, however, was simply the best.
  • The Columbus Blue Jackets opened the scoring on a 2-on-1 after Kyle Burroughs got caught deep with no forward covering for him at the point. Noah Juulsen, just called up from Abbotsford, did the Kevin Bieksa slide to try to break up the rush, but Alexandre Texier still got the pass across to Eric Robinson, who went under the bar like Barbados Slim.  
  • Elias Pettersson probably should have tied the game a few minutes later or at least set up a good chance to do so. He jumped onto a misplayed puck by Elvis Merzlikins and was looking to capitalize on the Blue Jackets goaltender being out of his net but Merzlikins pokechecked him outside the trapezoid, which should’ve been a penalty. You could even see Merzlikins look straight at the referee, who was right there, checking to see if he spotted the infraction.
  • Instead, the Blue Jackets extended their lead later in the period. A point shot deflected off the skates of both Poolman and Jack Roslovic in front and the puck wound up in the crease, where Max Domi banged it in like a protruding nail.  
  • Jaroslav Halak entered the game without a single win as a Canuck, though that was hardly his fault given the lack of run support he’d been given so far this season. This was his first start in over two weeks and looked a little shaky in the first period, particularly on the Blue Jackets’ third goal: a quick snap shot from the speedy Robinson that snuck through the five-hole.
  • That was the last goal Halak would give up, though it certainly helped that the Canucks took over the game. The Blue Jackets had 12 shots in the first period; they would get just 12 more the rest of the game, while the Canucks piled up a whopping 31 shots in the second and third periods.  
  • Boudreau credited Conor Garland, who got involved physically with the much larger Vladislav Gavrikov, for the turnaround: “We finally had somebody showing some emotion and it happened to be the smallest guy on the ice and once he did that…I thought the bench perked up.”
  • Garland’s emotion may well have sparked the team, though they were already pouring on the pressure in the offensive zone before that. What is definitely true is that Horvat got the Canucks first goal on the ensuing 4-on-4 with a lightning bolt of a shot that erupted from his stick like it was Mjolnir, blasting into the top corner.
  • Horvat was flying after his goal, with a game-high six shots on goal, as well as hitting a crossbar. He was churning up ice all game and played a physical game, landing four hits. It was exactly the type of lead-by-example game the Canucks needed from their captain.
  • A fantastic shift by Conor Garland gave Elias Pettersson a goal. Garland stole the puck from Gustav Nyquist on a breakout, then filched the puck from Jake Bean before sending an aerial pass to Pettersson that was too hot to handle. No matter: Garland just stole the puck from Bean again and put the puck much more neatly to Pettersson in the crease and he chipped it up and over Merzlikins’ pad.
  • Apparently, Merzlikins was tired of Horvat buzzing around his net because at one point in the third period he just straight up ripped the stick out of Horvat’s hands and hucked it down the ice. It was delightful.
  • This was a superb game by Quinn Hughes, who picked up three assists. His best came on the tying goal. He took a pass from Tyler Myers and looped behind the Blue Jackets’ net, causing his check to get stuck in front. That gave Hughes all kinds of time at the right side of the net and he patiently held the puck, waited until Merzlikins committed to the shot, then sent a perfect pass to Vasily Podkolzin for the finish.
  • "His passing is elite, his skating is elite, and he does it effortlessly,” said Boudreau of Hughes. “For a guy his size that can play 27-28 minutes — hard minutes! — a night, it's pretty awe-inspiring."
  • Brock Boeser didn’t figure into the scoring much — he had one secondary assist — but don’t be fooled; this was a beast of a game from Boeser. He was matched up against the Blue Jackets’ top line all night but the Canucks still out-shot the Blue Jackets 15-4 when Boeser was on the ice at 5-on–5 and he was skating with confidence, strength, and shiftiness, which he used to draw a crucial penalty with about a minute left in the game. 
  • Horvat scored the game-winning goal on that power play. It came off a gorgeous pass through traffic by J.T. Miller but the finish was just as impressive. The puck came across Horvat’s body and he went down to one knee with a low grip on his stick to make sure his stick was strong enough to redirect the hard pass, sending the puck top shelf where Mama hides the Christmas presents. 
  • “I was just trying to get it on net,” said Horvat. “I knew it was gonna have to be a bullet pass from Millsy and he made it right in my wheelhouse. I just wanted to be strong on my stick and try to get it on net. Thankfully, it got up for me and went in.”
  • The comeback nearly came undone in the final seconds, as the Blue Jackets got a power play of their own but Halak came up with a massive point-blank save on Boone Jenner from the top of the crease to secure the win, his first as a Canuck. That more than made up for the weak goal in the first period; he earned that win.
  • That’s five wins in a row under Bruce Boudreau. With the way this season has gone, you’d be forgiven if you, like Mae, were waiting for the breakdown — is it ever gonna come? Maybe it won’t. What can you say about this little run under Boudreau? It’s magic.