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I Watched This Game: Miller reignites Canucks power play in Game 3 win vs Predators

J.T. Miller had 6 of the Vancouver Canucks' 12 shots on goal, while Casey DeSmith made 30 saves to beat the Nashville Predators.
The Vancouver Canucks set a new franchise record for fewest shots in a playoff game and still beat the Nashville Predators in Game 3.

Coming into Friday’s Game 3 against the Nashville Predators, the Vancouver Canucks emphasized the importance of getting more shots on net.

The Canucks were averaging the fewest shots on goal of any team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs after 21 shots in Game 1 and just 18 shots in Game 2. Head coach Rick Tocchet talked about being more decisive about getting the puck to the net on the power play and teeing up shots in all situations even when the Predators were getting in the shooting lanes.

With all that insistence on getting more shots, the Canucks, of course, set a new franchise record for the fewest shots on goal in a playoff game.

The Canucks’ 12 shots on goal bettered — or worsened — the previous record of 13 shots on goal, which they did twice: once on April 23, 2003 against the Minnesota Wild and once on May 22, 2011 against the San Jose Sharks.

And, like those two games, the Canucks won.

The Predators out-shot the Canucks 31-to-12 but it should be noted that 24 of the Predators’ shots came after the Canucks took a 2-0 lead. When Brock Boeser scored the 2-0 goal four-and-a-half minutes into the second period, the shots were 7-to-5 for the Predators. 

The shot tally also belies the actual scoring chances. At 5-on-5, the Predators out-shot the Canucks 25-to-7; according to Natural Stat Trick, the high-danger chances at 5-on-5 were just 5-to-3 for the Predators.

In other words, the Predators were getting more shots but they weren’t getting them from the most dangerous areas on the ice.

“One of the parts of our DNA as a team is making the goalies play half the net, protecting the middle, and when it gets loud and crazy, just do your job and stay in your structure,” said J.T. Miller. “We don’t have to do anybody else’s job, you don’t have to go rogue. 

“Tonight, I thought we had tons of sticks in the middle of the rink and that’s probably why it’s frustrating for the other team because you want to get to the interior and I think playoff hockey is about denying that.”

Tocchet had criticisms for his team’s game, particularly their coverage through the neutral zone, but could find no fault with how they performed in the defensive zone.

“I do like our D-zone coverage,” said Tocchet. “As much as they had a lot of possession, we limited a lot inside. I thought our rails (Ed. note: the slot between the hashmarks) were really good tonight and if they did get inside, Casey [DeSmith] was there for us.”

Look, averaging around 17 shots per game is not typically a recipe for winning a playoff series. And yet, the Canucks are now up 2-1 against the Predators and have wrested home-ice advantage back in their favour, so maybe it’s one of those recipes like Kedgeree — hardboiled eggs, smoked fish boiled in milk, and onions in rice with curry powder, parsley, and lemon juice — that sounds like it shouldn’t work but somehow does. 

The Canucks cooked up an unexpectedly delicious performance when I watched this game.

  • DeSmith made 30 saves on 31 shots and carried a shutout through most of the game until Luke Evangelista finally beat him with about three minutes left. Even then, the goal arguably shouldn’t have counted. Like an actress’s wallet, phone, and keys on the red carpet, DeSmith came through in the clutch.
  • It helped that the Predators were seemingly cursed with the same finishing luck that the Canucks were plagued with in Game 2. A few minutes into the game, Ryan O’Reilly got ahold of a rebound at the top of the crease with DeSmith scrambling but the puck somehow hit DeSmith’s skate as he turned his back to the puck, then pinballed off Tyler Myers’ shin and went just wide. 
  • A few seconds later, O’Reilly hit the post. At this point, we should check to see if Elias Pettersson gave some sort of cursed object to O’Reilly, like the button in Drag Me to Hell, to pass along his finishing curse.
  • Fueled by the crowd, the Predators threw hits with wild abandon in the first period. They were particularly targeting Quinn Hughes on the forecheck. They gave him none of the space they’ve granted him in their own zone and tagged the typically elusive defenceman with some heavy contact, forcing Hughes into some uncharacteristic turnovers. Seeing Hughes rush a breakout pass and give the puck away was like watching Tiger Woods duff a ball right into a creek at the Masters: it feels like you’ve seen something morally wrong.
  • “I think our breakout strategy, partly, we can hold up some players but I also think Huggy, there’s some things he can do so he doesn’t get hit too,” said Tocchet. “If we shore up our neutral zone, we’ll have more time on our breakouts and then Huggy will have some more time to make a play.”
  • In the first period, Nashville was all over the Canucks like they were a blonde female country singer but an undisciplined penalty turned the tide. Michael McCarron ran Casey DeSmith behind the net with a hit that looked an awful lot like a fourth-liner trying to knock out a team’s backup goaltender when their starter was already injured. I was really confused as to why Canucks fans kept calling McCarron the game engine designed for Maniac Mansion, though.
  • The Canucks made the Predators pay on the power play with their very first shot of the game, 13:23 into the first period. J.T. Miller had one shot blocked, giving Mark Jankowski a chance to clear the puck but he threw it right at Quinn Hughes, keeping the puck in the zone. That gave Miller another shot — literally — and he made no mistake the second time, beating Juuse Saros past the stubbornly opaque Brock Boeser. 
  • “Those don’t go in without [Boeser],” said Miller. “I’m shooting about the top of the circle, normally, and we’ve scored on that goal plenty of times over the years but he’s getting really good at making the goalie, when I release it, look at his back. [Saros] is too good to score on him from out there. It’s not going to happen without the screen and [Boeser] knows that. So, we try to show him different looks, but if he sees it, he’s going to catch it. It’s a great play by Brock.”
  • Tyler Myers returned to the lineup after missing Game 2 with the flu. He didn’t quite save a goal early in the second period — the puck that snuck through DeSmith had settled in the crease and wasn’t heading toward the goal line — but it sure felt like he did in the moment. If he wasn’t there with his long reach, who knows what would have happened! (Filip Hronek would have gotten it instead, that’s what would have happened)
  • The Canucks struck again on the power play in the second period. Miller set up down low and looked towards Elias Lindholm in the bumper to draw a penalty killer into that passing lane before firing a no-look pass onto Boeser’s tape at the top of the crease to tip through Saros’s legs a split second before he was belted to the ice by Jeremy Lauzon. I haven’t seen a Miller feed someone like that since, well, the last time I saw someone eat bread, I guess.
  • It was a superb game overall for Miller, who had 6 of the Canucks’ 12 shots on goal. He missed the net nine times in the first two games of the series, so he must have properly zeroed his sniper scope between Games 2 and 3.
  • “It was a one-and-done night for us probably as a team. We didn’t sustain many shifts,” said Miller. “I had a ton of shots today but that was about it. That was it and we were backchecking and we didn’t play in any zone tonight, we just kind of went up and down.” 
  • Miller and Boeser have been excellent in puck possession this series but getting on the scoreboard was huge for both of them, as was breaking the goose egg on the power play. Hopefully, these two power play goals can boost their confidence and help them finish at 5-on-5, because they’ve been territorially dominant at even-strength.
  • “The Conn Smythe winner last year, [Jonathan] Marchessault, he didn’t score the first six games, right?” said Tocchet, although it was seven games. “Star guys are going to [have slumps], but if you watch them, they stick with it. You’ve got to have other parts of your game. That’s what our guys are learning: if you’re not scoring offensively, you’ve got to make sure you’re good in other parts of the game. Now Millsy and Brock have a good game for us, so that’s just a lesson for whoever is struggling that make sure the other parts of your game are really good and eventually the offence will come.”
  • Before the game, Nikita Zadorov talked about enjoying being the villain in road games — “It’s cool when everybody hates you when you’re on the ice so they’re booing you” — and he stepped into the villainous role by stepping into Roman Josi with a thunderous hit midway through the second period. He then unleashed what seemed to be a war cry at the Predators’ bench, an exultant “Woo!” before one of his teammates pulled him back to the bench.
  • DeSmith added an exclamation point to an excellent second period by robbing Luke “The Physician” Evangelista with what can only be described as a big toe save, both because it was a big save and because he made said save with his big toe. I haven’t seen someone make a toe save that unexpected since Harley the bulldog.  
  • The second intermission saw some wonderful storytelling from Kevin Bieksa, as he shared a tale of the “game within the game” from 2011’s matchup with the Predators, completely with a crudely illustrated Bridgestone Arena. 
  • The third period played out like the reverse of Game 2, as it was the Canucks’ turn to hunker down and block a bushel of shots. The Canucks blocked 31 shots in total, with 15 of those blocks coming in the third period. Shot attempts were 32-to-6 in all situations for the Predators in the third period, as the Canucks were the hockey equivalent of Homer Simpson in a boxing ring.  
  • “Blocking shots is a non-negotiable part of this time of year,” said Ian Cole. “They’ve done a great job of that as the first two games went along. Just the way this game went, that’s what we had to do. That’s the position we were in. They were pressing at the end, we were killing some penalties, and it comes with the territory. We’re happy to do whatever it takes to get the win and try to help Casey out as best we can.”
  • The Canucks made it a little extra hard on themselves when Zadorov, who otherwise had a fantastic game, cleared the puck over the glass while killing a penalty, giving the Predators a 21-second 5-on-3. It could have been disastrous but it instead led to a heroic moment for Ian Cole, who first got in the way of a Roman Josi slap shot, then blocked a Ryan O’Reilly shot with his face like he was Scott Sterling.  
  • Seriously, O’Reilly’s cursed now. It’s the only explanation.
  • “I can’t say enough about the guys, especially on that 5-on-3 — all the kills we had,” said DeSmith. “Guys like Coler, Big Z, Mysie, just so many guys eating pucks. Teddy Blueger, huge block at the end — I think it was Josi walking down the pipe. The guys really earned that one.”
  • “Those guys that are getting the call regularly are doing an unbelievable job for us," said Miller. "They take so much pride in that area of the rink. It’s nice to see after the last couple of years of how much our penalty kill kind of failed and let us down sometimes...In years prior, they get the power play in the third, you know they’re scoring. It’s a terrible feeling.”
  • It took a gamble at the blue line by Hronek, a blown tire by Elias Lindholm, and some subtle goaltender interference but the Predators finally solved DeSmith with three minutes left. LIndholm stumbled as he shadowed Evangelista, allowing the winger to come off the boards and rip the puck past DeSmith’s glove as Colton Sissons’ skate in the crease prevented DeSmith from moving to his left. 
  • The Canucks probably would have won a coach’s challenge for goaltender interference, as the deciding factor is typically whether contact was initiated by the offending player inside the crease. Still, it’s understandable why they didn’t want to risk it: a failed challenge would have given the Predators a power play for delay of game with three minutes left in a one-goal game. Instead, the Canucks coaching staff trusted their players to close out the final minutes.
  • “I was trying to move over to kind of centre myself on the shot and I ran into his skate. I guess I didn’t sell it enough, maybe I’ll have to go back to the drawing board and take a little dive next time,” said a grinning DeSmith to Wayne Gretzky on TNT’s broadcast. “I was definitely hoping for a challenge but a win’s a win and I couldn’t be happier right now.”
  • That’s two wins down, 14 to go.