On the Vancouver Canucks’ last homestand, fans were primed and ready to boo. Discontent was brewing in the fanbase after the team had lost their last three games by a combined score of 19-to-6 and it seemed like any moment that discontent could spill out into jeers and heckles.
The Canucks never gave them that chance.
Yes, the Canucks lost two of their three games on their last homestand, but even in the two losses they kept things close: they were within one goal against the Colorado Avalanche until a last-minute empty net goal and only lost by one to the Chicago Blackhawks. There was no clear moment for upset fans to vocally erupt.
It’s tough to boo in a tight game. Even disgruntled fans are fans and want to see their team succeed, particularly when they’ve shelled out for tickets to see a game.
Heading into this homestand with a Saturday game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the situation was a little different. Instead of three-straight ugly losses, the Canucks were riding the high of a two-game win “streak.” Sure, those wins came against two of the worst teams in the NHL, but a win is a win, and the Canucks were looking to take that confidence home with them.
Instead, the Canucks gave fans the chance to air their grievances — an early Festivus — and the fans aired them with gusto.
With the Canucks down 4-1 with five minutes remaining, the boos from the few remaining fans began in earnest, then waxed and waned as the game went on.
With about a minute left, a “Fire Benning” chant could be heard, clear as a bell, on the Sportsnet broadcast. It sounded even louder in the building.
Then, with one second left, a jersey hit the ice.
There’s a long history of fans protesting their team by throwing a jersey on the ice. Some people don’t like it — John Garrett is one of them — and call it disrespectful. And it is disrespectful. That’s the point.
Players talk about playing for the logo on the front, not the name on the back — they get irate if you step on the logo in the locker room — so tearing the logo off your torso and tossing it onto the ice for it to be scooped up like so much trash is about as disrespectful as it gets.
But the disrespect is the point. The fans feel disrespected by the product they see on the ice and they feel — perhaps correctly — that the only way to communicate that they feel disrespected is to show the same disrespect right back.
It’s not supposed to feel pleasant. Protests are never about making anyone feel good. They’re about creating discomfort to the point that those in power are forced to make a change.
I saw and heard the passion and anger of Canucks fans when I watched this game.
- Bo Horvat, whose jersey was thrown on the ice, was blunt about the boos: “Fans want wins and we're not giving it to them, so…”
- Tyler Motte might have binge-watched The Good Place recently, because his response to the boos echoed the book that forms the spine of that show, Tim Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other. Or, at least, it made me think of it: “We've got to continue to look ourselves in the mirror, find a way to be better because we owe it to more people than just ourselves.”
- This game could have gone very differently. The Canucks were badly outplayed in the first two periods, but with four minutes left in the second period, they were still in the game thanks to some excellent goaltending by Thatcher Demko and a timely goal by Vasily Podkolzin. The score was tied 1-1 and the Canucks were an Elias Pettersson post away from being up by one. Then everything went off the rails.
- Even the Penguins opening goal was a lucky one: a point shot caromed off Tanner Pearson to Jake Guentzel at the right faceoff circle and his shot banked in off Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s leg. The Canucks could easily believe that they were fully in this game, even as the Penguins shot total towered over that of the Canucks. When you’re outshooting a team that badly, bounces have an easier time going your way.
- Still, the Canucks responded with what was essentially a power play goal, coming two seconds after a penalty expired. Ekman-Larsson snuck a point shot through traffic and Vasily Podkolzin tipped it in the slot. The puck went off Tristan Jarry’s shoulder and tumbled up into the air like Simone Biles. Unlike Biles, the puck went over the line after it landed.
- “We obviously weren't at our best tonight but, I mean, we were still right in the game until we got into some penalty trouble,” said Horvat.
- Penalty trouble is putting it lightly. The Canucks took five minor penalties in less than ten minutes. After a pair of undisciplined tripping penalties by J.T. Miller, things really went haywire when Tyler Myers had to discard a broken stick and decided his best course of action was to dive to the ice, grab the puck with his hand, and fling it out of the zone. As they say in hockey, “You can’t do that.”
- Shortly after Myers’ penalty, it got worse. In a battle with Kris Letang, Tyler Motte gave the Penguins defenceman a shove from behind and he tumbled awkwardly into the boards. It was a borderline call — and one that Canucks coach Travis Green didn’t feel was a penalty — but it also wasn’t entirely surprising with the NHL’s crackdown this season on crosschecking.
- “Tough one to take, obviously, when you're already down a guy,” said Motte. “I don't think anyone ever really agrees with one that they take but when a player comes up to you after and tells you he's losing an edge on the way down — it's tough.”
- To top it off, Tucker Poolman took one more penalty, launching a bouncing puck off a rebound over the glass. The delay of game call put three Canucks in the penalty box and gave the Penguins a long 5-on-3.
- Well, the 5-on-3 wasn’t that long. Eight seconds after Poolman’s penalty, Guentzel hammered a one-timer that tipped off Ekman-Larsson’s stick over Thatcher Demko’s glove. A minute later, still on a 5-on-3, Guentzel completed the hat trick with a shot that went off Luke Schenn’s rear end and in.
- The Penguins sealed the deal in the third period with a goal from Sidney Crosby. Poolman got caught on the wrong side of Crosby after a board battle and couldn’t do anything to stop the Penguins captain from finishing off a cross-crease pass by Letang. That made the game 4-1 with under nine minutes remaining and set the stage for the booing and chanting that would ensue.
- Absolutely none of this loss can be pinned on Demko, who made 40 saves, many of them fantastic. Three of the Penguins’ goals came off deflections off Canucks defencemen and the fourth was a backdoor pass to one of the best players in NHL history.
- “I think it's been no secret — he's been our most consistent and one of our best players all year round,” said Motte of Demko. “He's kept us in a lot of games, he's given us opportunities to push back and, unfortunately, it's sad the amount of times that we've hung him out to dry.”
- It was an odd night for the penalty kill. The two power play goals were both at 5-on-3, which is a unique and difficult situation. Still, this makes the tenth time this season the penalty kill has given up at least two goals.
- When asked if he has the personnel available to effectively kill penalties, Green’s answer seemed telling: “Yeah. Well, it's what we have here, so…”
- It’s easy to pin this game on some unfortunate penalties and 5-on-3 goals but the truth is, the Penguins soundly outplayed the Canucks in every facet of the game. It wasn’t just special teams — scoring chances were 25-14 for the Penguins at 5-on-5 according to Natural Stat Trick — and the Canucks struggled to transition the puck out of their own zone.
- “It was obviously a lot of execution,” said Horvat when asked what the issue was in transition. “We were mishandling pucks and not getting them behind their D and getting on the forecheck. I mean a lot of our game and why we have had success in the past is our forecheck and in our ability to outskate teams, and we didn't do that tonight.”
- Honestly, they haven’t done that most nights. That's not just a tonight problem.