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I Watched This Game: Canucks beat the Predators but lose their identity

Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes led the way with three goals and three assists, respectively.
The Vancouver Canucks beat the Nashville Predators 5-2 on Tuesday night but head coach Rick Tocchet wasn't happy with their performance.

There were a lot of reasons for positivity on Tuesday night in Rogers Arena.

Elias Pettersson scored the second hat trick of his career and his first on home ice, causing a barrage of some unusual hats as people decimated their Halloween costumes to laud their hero.  The three goals moved him into second in the NHL in scoring.

Quinn Hughes had three assists, including primary assists on the opening and tying goals. The three-point night moved him into a tie with Adam Fox for first among NHL defencemen in scoring.

Thatcher Demko stopped every shot he faced in the second and third periods to close out a 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators. The win keeps the Canucks in second in the Pacific Division and moves them into fourth in the entire NHL with a 6-2-1 record.

After the game, however, head coach Rick Tocchet did not seem thrilled with how his team played.

“Obviously, that's not our brand of hockey. I thought we were pretty loose,” said Tocchet. “Too many turnovers, too many people diving in. It wasn't a great game for us identity-wise.”

There’s no denying that the Canucks were not playing the crisp, connected game that led to a 3-2 win the last time they played the Predators. There were passes to nowhere all night and too many missed assignments in the defensive zone. They were slopping up the ice like it was a steak at Truffoni’s.  

It was a dangerous night that could have gone a lot worse if not for the performance of the team’s top three players: Pettersson, Hughes, and Demko. But Tocchet wasn’t even all that happy with Pettersson despite the hat trick.

“He was turning the puck over a lot, though,” said Tocchet. “Him getting three goals, I like that part, but he was one of the culprits of turning the puck over. He knows it.”

Call it accountability: even after a win, even after a hat trick, you can still be held accountable for falling short of expectations.

Of course, the player who felt that accountability the most on Tuesday night was J.T. Miller.

Miller was briefly benched at the end of the second period after his third minor penalty of the game. It was a proper benching too: he was moved to the far left side of the bench with the responsibility of opening and closing the bench door for his teammates who were actually playing. 

You know it was a real benching when Miller didn’t even come out for a power play. And then the Canucks scored on that power play without him.

Then Miller came out to take the opening faceoff in the third period and responded to his benching with a gritty goal in front of the net. At this point, it seems like Tocchet can’t miss; every decision he makes result in an ideal outcome.

“I love Millsy. He's played unreal hockey for me,” said Tocchet. “I felt at the time he needed to sit for four minutes. It could have been J.T., it could have been anybody. Accountability. And he responds with a goal and I think he's fine.”

That’s how Tocchet felt about the benching. We don’t know what Miller thought about it because he dodged the media after the game. He was supposedly “receiving treatment” when the media were in the locker room and, when some of the media contingent waited around for said treatment to be finished, they were informed that Miller would not be made available to speak.

Accountability only goes so far, I suppose.

In any case, Tocchet’s stern words after the game made it clear that winning a game isn’t the be-all and end-all for the Canucks head coach. Winning one game is all well and good, but what he wants is for them to play in such a way that they will keep winning all season long.

Tocchet summed up his concerns by saying, “We’ve got to be careful we don’t get fat and happy around here.”

Considering how much leftover Halloween candy is currently in my house, I’ll also need to be careful I don’t get fat and happy when I head home after I watched this game.

  • There wasn’t just one culprit when it came to the Canucks’ soggy passing. The passers weren’t moving the puck well but the potential receivers were not where they were supposed to be either, which frequently resulted in trying to force passes that simply weren’t there. It’s not surprising that the Predators controlled possession at 5-on-5, out-attempting the Canucks 56-to-34.

  • “I think it’s both,” said Tocchet when I asked whether the turnovers were on the passers or receivers. “On a regroup, guys are just cruising back, so now the D got it, we want to play a quick up and we’re not getting back into position. So, what do they do, they try to throw it in the middle of the ice and it gets picked off. So, it’s kind of a combination.”

  • Some of it was miscommunication too, like when Tyler Myers hesitated to move toward a deflected pass from Pettersson inside the offensive blue line and Pettersson froze, not knowing whether to start skating on the backcheck or not. That turned into a 3-on-1 for the Predators and a penalty shot when Myers slashed Liam Foudy going to the net. 

  • Fortunately for the Canucks, the Predators were frequently just as sloppy as they were. Even Foudy toe-picked on the penalty shot, stumbling to the ice and missing the net. It was a comedy of errors and not the fun one by Billy Shakespeare. For instance, Tuesday’s hockey game had far fewer identical twins.

  • There’s a remedy for when the team doesn’t have its A-game: elite talent and going to the net. On the opening goal, Hughes made a sublime play at the point to pivot away from his check and create space for himself down the left flank. Then, with Sam Lafferty mucking it up in front of goaltender Kevin “Lanky” Lankinen, Hughes hammered a hard shot on net; the rebound hit Sam Lafferty in the noggin and bounced in. 

  • Unfortunately, Hughes then made a rare unforced error, turning the puck over on an attempted cross-ice pass. The Predators counterattacked with numbers and also the puck. Thatcher Demko was over-aggressive on the broken play and went down early, losing the net in the process, and Colton Sissons was able to jab a deflected pass into the empty cage.

  • That was the first goal scored against the Canucks when both Hughes and Filip Hronek were on the ice together but the second came just 30 seconds later. Miller and Brock Boeser got caught chasing the puck, giving Dante Fabbro acres of space to step up and fire a shot past a screened Demko to make it 2-1.

  • “I mean, we’re not gonna go the whole year without getting scored on,” said Hughes with a smile. “We’ve been really, really good. I thought we were going to be a very good tandem but we’ve been way better than even I could have pictured us being. He’s helped me so much. I’m getting way more looks — three or four more looks per game — and our breakouts are way cleaner.”

  • Miller got in some penalty trouble at the end of the second period, as he impolitely expressed his displeasure with a hooking penalty he received and was remanded for an additional two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct. Fortunately, the Canucks’ penalty kill had no issues with the four-minute power play and Pius Suter ended it early by drawing a hooking penalty of his own with eight seconds left in the first.

  • That drawn penalty proved crucial, as the Canucks kicked off the second period at 4-on-4 instead of the penalty kill and scored the tying goal. Hughes ran a blocking route for Pettersson, giving him the space in the middle of the ice to fire a shot just as Ilya Mikheyev cut in front of Lankinen, taking his eyes away like he was Samson. Lankinen got a piece of the puck but it still tumbled down behind him like Dagon’s Temple and slid into the net. 

  • “It just happened quick,” said Pettersson, saying that he didn’t intentionally wait for Mikheyev to screen Lankinen. “I thought I had more space and then their guy was pokechecking me, so I just tried to get the shot off quick…But definitely the second one, I was waiting to see what the goalie saw and he gave me the far side, but the first one was a little flukey.”

  • Pettersson’s second goal came on the power play after Miller was benched. With Boeser providing the screen in front, Pettersson caught Lankinen looking around the short side and made like me in the humour section at a used bookstore: he picked the far side.  

  • At one point, Boeser went to join a board battle and had his stick lifted. Actually, “lifted” is underselling it. His stick was nearly raptured, as it went flying into the heavens before gravity took over and pulled it down into the third row. Regrettably, the fan who caught the stick didn’t get to keep it — those things are expensive.
  • Miller’s third-period redemption came courtesy of an absolutely awful penalty call. On the penalty kill, Miller was reaching to break up a pass and Filip Forsberg’s stick happened to clip Miller’s stick as he passed the puck. The gentlest of touches still managed to knock the stick out of Miller’s hand. Somehow, that was deemed interference. It might be the softest penalty call in the history of the NHL.
  • The Canucks were outplayed at 5-on-5, but they owned the puck at 4-on-4. After Forsberg’s penalty, Boeser fired a shot with Miller screening and the puck squeaked by Lankinen into the crease. Miller gave the puck a poke, then Lankinen accidentally sent it the rest of the way into the net, giving Miller his Lloyd-Christmas-trading-the-Mutt-Cutts-van-for-a-mini-bike moment. 

  • That gave the Canucks the 4-2 lead, then Pettersson completed the hat trick into the empty net to make it 5-2. It was a bit of redemption himself for the two empty nets he missed the last time they played the Predators. He guided the puck in ever so carefully, nearly sweeping it in like a curler.

  • “I was just making sure I wasn’t missing another open net,” said Pettersson. “Little redemption there.”

  • One last note on Miller dodging the media. It’s frustrating but not just for the media. The whole point of him talking to the media is so that the fans can hear what he has to say and get his perspective on a key moment of the game. 

    It should honestly be an entirely positive story, as even a key leader in the room and one of their top scorers shows that he’s not above being held accountable and takes responsibility for it. That’s the good stuff! That’s what fans want to see from this team after years of star players seemingly being held to a different standard than rookie and depth players. It was an opportunity for Miller to embrace the moment and the team’s new culture. It’s disappointing that he didn’t step up to own that opportunity.