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I Watched This Game: Kuzmenko’s three-point night not enough to sink the Kraken

Andrei Kuzmenko looked like a young Sergei Shirokov on Thursday night at Rogers Arena.
Pass it to Bulis - IWTG. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

Andrei Kuzmenko had himself a game. 

With all of the caveats that the Vancouver Canucks were playing a Seattle Kraken team that was primarily icing AHLers and prospects, Kuzmenko looked fantastic on Thursday night at Rogers Arena. 

It wasn’t just the two goals and an assist — though that didn’t hurt — it’s how comfortable he looked on NHL ice. He was darting around opponents with the puck, sending smart passes into open space for his linemates, and making high IQ plays like “dummying” the puck at the blue line to throw off the defence and give his teammate more time with the puck.

He even earned himself a comparison — an overzealous one, to be sure — to Pavel Bure’s first game in Vancouver with one drive to the net that bore a passing resemblance to Bure’s best scoring chance from that game.

“I hope it gives him confidence,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau about Kuzmenko’s three-point night. “He could’ve had two or three more — he’s always in a position to put the puck in the net, so that’s good.”

Kuzmenko was at his best on the power play, where he played the net-front/down-low role to perfection. He also showcased the superb release on his shot — he’s going to be dangerous when he gets a little bit of time and space.

“Definitely upper echelon,” said Quinn Hughes of Kuzmenko’s release. “Great shot, great hands, hockey sense — he’s pretty much got it all and he competes too…I don’t know if you saw him screen the goalie too, he’s not afraid to get hit by a shot or get gritty. Very impressive.”

The Canucks just have to hope Kuzmenko leans more towards Bure than, say, Sergei Shirokov and Fedor Fedorov, two other Russian players who came in and dazzled in the preseason before fizzling once the real games started. He doesn’t have to be as good as Bure, mind you — just on the spectrum of Russian Canucks from Shirokov to Bure, it seems obvious which end of the spectrum you want Kuzmenko to lean towards.

I saw a lot to like about Kuzmenko when I watched this game.

  • It was a great game for Kuzmenko and a few other individual Canucks, but not for the team as a whole, giving up a 3-1 third-period lead and losing in overtime. The results of the game may not mean anything in the standings but Bruce Boudreau was still majorly miffed about the team’s inability to close out the game.
  • “My biggest thing is that’s two games at home against what I think were inferior lineups and we didn’t do what we were supposed to do,” said Boudreau. “I want to see complete games. Whether you win or lose, it’s not important, they don’t count…Playing the right way in your own zone, playing the right way in the neutral zone, playing the right way in the offensive zone, shorter shifts — these things all count.”
  • The Canucks were the better team through the first two periods and Kuzmenko opened the scoring when he came off the bench like Detlef Schrempf, took a superb pass from Hughes, and pulled the puck in towards his skates to change the angle before firing a bullet past Joey Daccord. 
  • Something that might be notable about Hughes’s assist is that it came from the left side of the ice. This was his first game playing on the right side with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and results were mixed. He didn’t create much at all from the right side, but when he and Ekman-Larsson rotated during a shift, he looked a lot more comfortable jumping up in the zone to create offence. It was just the first game, so we should give it time, but it’s something to keep an eye on. 
  • “I’m surfing — sometimes I’m on the left, sometimes on the right,” said Quinn “Surfer Dude” Hughes after the game. No really, he said that. I guess he’s redefining the old-school hockey position of “rover” as “surfer.”
  • The Canucks power play was fantastic. The top unit consisted of Hughes, Kuzmenko, J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, and Tanner Pearson in Bo Horvat’s spot in the bumper — their puck movement was crisp and quick with more rotations than Jupiter to give the opposing penalty kill fits trying to keep track of everyone. 
  • Elias Pettersson gifted Kuzmenko a goal on the power play to make it 2-0. Pettersson fought off two penalty killers on the left side to hook the puck back to Miller, then snuck behind the net to get open on the right side. Miller found him through the seam and Pettersson performed the smoothest catch and release this side of pro fishing, sending the puck perfectly to Kuzmenko at the back door for the easiest goal of his life.
  • Conor Garland would’ve made it 3-0 with a nifty deflection off his skate but the goal was called back on an offside review. I would complain about the Kraken using a coach’s challenge in the preseason but, to be fair, it was pretty dang offside.
  • The Kraken got one back on a power play of their own — from a Kuzmenko can opener that was the lone stain on his otherwise great game — as Tye Kartye’s stick was left entirely unbothered by Danny DeKeyser as he got multiple attempts to score on a Shane Wright rebound. DeKeyser was not the emperor of the penalty kill on that one. 
  • Honestly, the pairing of DeKeyser and Tucker Poolman did not look good. There were a lot of mistakes on breakouts, coughed up pucks at the blue line, and general lack of pace from that duo. The results weren’t terrible — the Kraken only had two shots on goal when that pairing was on the ice at 5-on-5 — but they didn’t look like a pairing that would survive against tougher competition.
  • The Canucks regained the two-goal lead on the power play with a familiar-looking play: Miller sent the puck down low and it was relayed into the slot for a one-timer. Only, it was Kuzmenko instead of Brock Boeser below the goal line and it was Pearson finishing the play instead of Horvat. Pearson’s finish lacked some of Horvat’s authority, but that’s what you get when you’re not the captain.
  • Dakota Joshua had a physical game, throwing six hits, including a devastating blow on Michal Kempny that ended his game. It wasn’t a dirty hit — Joshua is just a large lad. Here’s hoping Kempny is okay.
  • Meanwhile, Joshua’s name is going to be a problem. At one point, Rogers Arena’s announcer, Al Murdoch, announced his name as “Dakota Johnson” before quickly correcting himself. 
  • The line of Joshua with Nils Åman and Nils Höglander had plenty of energy all game and earned some praise from Boudreau. They didn’t find the back of the net, but Höglander created a lot of chances and Åman showed some high-end passing and vision. It seems clear why Åman has been skating with the Canucks’ main group — he’s got a real shot of earning a spot.
  • I should note while praising Åman that he seemed to injure his hand or wrist in a collision with Jack Rathbone late in overtime. The Canucks can’t have nice things, don’t you know? 
  • Arturs Silovs came in to replace Thatcher Demko in the third period and he gave up a stinker early on. Silovs tried to snag a bad-angle shot that appeared to be going wide but instead the puck went off his glove and landed in the crease behind him. Kole Lind, who should have been checked by Quinn Hughes, was free to poke the puck across the line, leaving everyone to ask the question, “Why isn’t anyone taking Kole Lind?”  
  • Let’s be blunt — Hughes’s defensive game on the right side wasn’t good. He got burned badly on a third-period rush shortly before the 3-3 goal, as his Kraken check cut inside at the blue line. It wasn’t all his fault — Ekman-Larsson left his man, John Hayden, wide open on the goal itself and he beat Silovs cleanly. 
  • A major positive was the play of Pettersson, who was the Canucks’ best player on the ice despite Kuzmenko stealing the headlines. He was a force for the Canucks, with nine shot attempts — Boudreau thought he had even more — and a lovely deke on Shane Wright that made it look like the Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, and Arizona Coyotes were right to pass on him.
  • The game went to overtime, which is exactly what everyone wants from the preseason, and Kuzmenko nearly ended it multiple times on his first shift, which would have brought the house down. The only thing he could have done to make himself more popular in Vancouver is to bring the housing market down.
  • The Kraken won the game when Tanner Pearson fanned on a pass to Hughes, allowing Will Borgen to spring Ryan Donato on a breakaway. Donato deked to the backhand for the game-winner. 
  • Was it the finish Canucks fans wanted? No. Is Bruce Boudreau happy? No. Does it really matter? No. This is what the preseason is for — messing up when it doesn’t matter so you get things right when it does matter. Well, that and building up animosity between rivals, because the Kraken were feisty and there were fisticuffs and brouhahas aplenty.