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I Watched This Game: Höglander douses the Flames for the Canucks

Nils Höglander, Elias Pettersson, and Conor Garland were the Vancouver Canucks' best line in a 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames.
Nils Höglander had two goals in the Vancouver Canucks' 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames on Saturday.

The Vancouver Canucks are back at the top of the NHL standings.

Saturday night’s 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames vaulted them over the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins into first place in the NHL with 98 points. That’s the most points they’ve had in a season since 2015 and there are still 11 games to go.

Nobody saw this coming. Even the most optimistic Canucks fan in October wouldn’t have picked them to be in the driver’s seat to win the Presidents’ Trophy with a month remaining in the season. 

The team’s star players are a big reason for that, with J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, and Quinn Hughes all well above a point-per-game, with Miller, Pettersson, and Brock Boeser all above 30 goals.

But another big reason for that success is a player like Nils Höglander.

Höglander is averaging under 12 minutes per game this season but has made an outsized impact in that limited ice time, scoring his 21st and 22nd goals of the season against the Flames. Even now, as he’s been elevated into a top-six role on a line with Elias Pettersson and Conor Garland, Höglander’s still seen minimal minutes.

“They were obviously our best line,” said Tocchet. “Petey was moving his feet, Gars doing his thing on the forecheck, Höggy — I mean, that breakaway goal, he made an unreal move. That line was feeling it tonight. I don't know what I played them but they were out there a lot. It was easy to put them out there.”

Pettersson and Garland were, indeed, out there a lot but Höglander played just 12:59 in ice time, third lowest on the team ahead of only Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Åman on the fourth line.

It may feel like Höglander deserves a lot more ice time but perhaps the Canucks shouldn’t mess with a good thing. Höglander plays such a high-energy game that maybe keeping his minutes in check is the best thing for him, so that every time he steps on the ice, he still has plenty left in the tank.

“Höggy really had his legs tonight early, got us going on the forecheck and for us undersized guys, we've got to spread them out in the D zone and that's kind of what we did and created a lot of chances,” said Garland.

It’s been a journey for Höglander, who spent most of last season in the AHL with the Abbotsford Canucks, completely overhauling his game away from the puck after two full seasons in the NHL. The talent was clearly there for Höglander but there were warts in his game, particularly in his blown assignments in the defensive zone.

Now, he’s a far more complete player, who is not only a prolific goalscorer but also a puck possession powerhouse, whose 54.0% corsi is the fourth-best among Canucks forwards.

“My first day here, I think it was my first interview, I couldn't believe how good [Höglander] was three years ago,” said Garland. “I think he's just really found his game all around the ice. It's hard when you're younger, and there's not really much structure in place and you're kind of just trying to feel the game out, but now we're a very structured team. We play a hard style of hockey and I think it's coming along for him.”

I couldn’t believe how good Höglander was three hours ago when I watched this game.

  • Höglander opened the scoring in the opening minute thanks to some sublime passing from Garland and Pettersson. It was technically a 3-on-3 rush, but Mikael Backlund failed to actually take anyone on the backcheck and just aimlessly twirled toward freedom like Bill Clinton. That left Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington to be picked apart by passes from Garland and Pettersson to set up the tap-in Höglander goal.
  • For the fourth-straight game, Casey DeSmith gave up two or fewer goals, though he once again didn’t have to face many shots. DeSmith made 22 saves on 24 shots, which isn’t a lot of saves, but some of them were of the genus Incredibulous and the family Outstandicus. He charged out to make a great save a few minutes in on Daniil Miromanov walking up Main Street that maintained the early lead Höglander had given the Canucks.
  • Elias Lindholm nearly got the weirdest assist of his career in his first game against his former team. His shot off the rush took a deflection and hit the dasher on the boards to fly high up into the air. The puck was airborne for nearly five full seconds. Jonathan Huberdeau seemed to be the only person on the ice who seemed to have any idea where the puck was, as he shouted at his clueless teammates before the puck hit the ice and bounced to a net-crashing Ilya Mikheyev, who couldn’t quite get his stick on it before Huberdeau knocked it away.
  • Who knows, maybe that was a set play from Rick Tocchet, to send the puck high in the air to land on a teammate’s stick in front of the net: The Airborne Tocch’s Stick Event.  
  • The best play of the period somehow wasn’t the passing to set up Höglander’s goal. Instead, it was a hustle play by Teddy Blueger on the backcheck. After Nils Åman collided with Jacob Markstrom below the Calgary goal line, the Canucks couldn’t convert on the vacated net, allowing the Flames to burst the other way. Blueger found an extra gear to catch Martin Pospisil, diving out to deflect away a pass that would have led to a grade-A scoring chance.
  • “The tracking, the extra two or three strides,” said Tocchet. “I've talked to you guys about breaking the seals, like there's three more strides in you. You might not have it, but you've got it. And that's a difference of getting a goal or not, right? If he doesn't dive, it's probably a tap-in or in an empty net, so that's a huge play.”
  • Pettersson’s line struck again to make it 2-0 in the second period. Garland protected the puck from Nazem Kadri and sent Pettersson and Höglander away 2-on-0 with a pass just out of the reach of the Flames defenceman. Pettersson sent Höglander in alone and the pint-sized power forward pulled out Ryan Kesler’s favourite breakaway move: the leg-kick into a deke to the backhand, sending the puck top shelf where Mama keeps the champagne flutes someone gave to her as a wedding present decades ago that she’s never actually used.
  • “Garland made a heck of a play and I saw that Högs had more speed than me and I saw their D-man or whatever was pretty close to us, so I just told Högs to go himself,” said Pettersson, later adding, “He faked me out. I thought he was gonna shoot and then he did what he did. I was fired up.”
  • When asked if that slick move might get Tocchet to use him in the shootout, Höglander enthusiastically said, “Hope so!”
  • Vasily Podkolzin was having a strong game early on and earned a promotion to J.T. Miller’s line with Brock Boeser. Regrettably, the new combination didn’t really work. The trio was out-shot 3-to-0 in their time together, including one of the Flames’ most dangerous chances and the first Flames goal.
  • It wasn’t Podkolzin’s fault. J.T. Miller stopped skating on the backcheck and instead pulled up and tried to pick off a pass. As he did so, Andersson jumped up in the play behind Miller and had all kinds of room to skate in and pick his spot on DeSmith, beating him on the blocker side.
  • Miller really did not have a good game on Saturday night and, before you come for me for that take, the criticism comes from Miller himself, albeit with less family-friendly phrasing that included him describing his performance as canine excrement. So, when he heard fans chanting his name late in the game, he had to admit he was a little confused as to why. Personally, I suspect it was because he scored a great goal that stood up as the game-winner, but what do I know?
  • Miller’s goal came on the power play. He had already missed the net on a chance on an earlier power play but, like he was shaving with a knife, Miller don’t miss twice. He fed the puck down low to Boeser, then wound up for a one-timer, drilling Boeser’s return pass inside the far post through the shooting lane vacated by Andersson as he moved to check Boeser. It was a perfectly executed play.
  • “The only thing [Tocchet] said going into that last power play was, 'Don't miss the net,'” said Miller. “I was aiming more in the middle, that's for sure.”
  • “I just told him, especially with three-four minutes left, your flanker shots, if you miss a net, that's usually [when] the PK takes off,” said Tocchet. “So I said, 'If you're going to take a shot, boys, you can't miss the net on the flanker." I said that to him, so obviously he listened to me because that was a hell of a goal.”
  • Before Miller’s goal, the Flames came agonizingly close to tying the game. Oliver Kylington made a gorgeous spinorama move to get around Sam Lafferty, then passed down low to Martin Pospisil, who set up Jonathan Huberdeau for a point-blank chance that he rung off the post. Before Pospisil could put the rebound into the net, Noah Juulsen deposited him in the net instead and Ilya Mikheyev alertly cleared the puck out of the crease.
  • “I kind of saw it come back out at me,” said DeSmith. “You just battle and try to get it out of there…Yeah, that was a nervous one.” When asked if he was the superstitious sort of goaltender who likes to thank his posts, DeSmith said, “Uh, no. The post didn’t do anything,” then laughed.
  • For the fourth game in a row, the Canucks kept a clean sheat on the penalty kill. “I think Lindy and Teddy are leading the charge,” said Tocchet. “I think [we were] better on the clears. I think Z [Zadorov] had a couple of good clears for us under pressure, he just ripped it down there, that was big.”
  • Zadorov had a strong game in general, with some heavy hits for his former Flames teammates, as well as, according to Tocchet, plenty of words from the bench. “A Big Z chirp? He's got so many,” said Tocchet, when asked for an example of what Zadorov was saying. “He's got the David Letterman top 10.”
  • Elias Lindholm got off the schneid with a minute left in the game to make it 4-1 — his first goal in 16 games. Sure, it was into the empty net but maybe that’s what he needs to get a little confidence or ego boost. It was pretty good as empty net goals go, hitting the middle of the net from inside his own blue line, and it always feels good to get a goal against the team that traded you away.
  • It’s a good thing Miller scored the insurance goal, as the Flames added a very, very late goal to make it 4-2. It was an innocent-looking play, as defenceman Joel Hanley just hacked the puck toward the net from the sideboards, but the puck sailed past Juulsen, who acted as an inadvertent screen, and into the top corner. But that’s okay. It’s fine. Like saying Dr. Lewis Dogson’s name, nobody cares.