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I Watched This Game: Miller's effort under microscope in Canucks loss to Flames

The Vancouver Canucks ended 2022 with a whimper.
The Vancouver Canucks couldn't come back from a 3-0 deficit to the Calgary Flames on New Year's Eve. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

2022 started off with a win for the Vancouver Canucks, a comfortable 5-2 victory over the Seattle Kraken on January 1. 

It was the final win of the Canucks’ initial nine-game point streak under new head coach Bruce Boudreau. Canucks fans, who had been calling for the old general manager and coach to get fired, were now chanting, “Bruce, there it is!” 

Things were looking up for the Canucks. It seemed so clear that 2022 was going to be different from 2021. 

To be fair, it was. In 2021, the Canucks went 38-44-7 for a points percentage of .466, which was the NHL’s 24th-ranked record that year. In 2022, the Canucks improved to 41-32-12, a points percentage of .553, 19th-best in the NHL. That is, by definition, both different and better.

But it’s also not particularly good, especially when you consider that it’s boosted by the Canucks’ slightly above-average record from the second half of last season. After that January 1 win, the Canucks went 24-15-9 to end the 2021-22 season — 24 wins and 24 losses to just miss the playoffs.

This season was supposed to build off how the team performed under Boudreau last season. Instead, it’s looked more like a relapse. The Canucks ended off 2022 with back-to-back losses that took them back under .500 for the 2022-23 season, with a 16-17-3 record. That’s a .486 points percentage, just a hair better than 2021.

What will 2023 be like for the Canucks? Can they turn this sinking ship around in time to get back to port, make repairs, and set sail once more? Or is it already a lost cause and all that’s left is to scuttle the ship, salvage it for parts, and start over?

It’s been hard to watch at times, but I diligently did my duty all year long. I watched all of the other games in 2022 just like I watched this game.

  • Before the game, Nils Åman was surprisingly sent down to the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL and Will Lockwood was called up, with Lane Pederson sitting as a healthy scratch despite playing on a top-six line with Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko. Lockwood has earned the call up, however, with 12 goals and 18 points in 24 games in Abbotsford this season, along with some strong two-way play.

  • Lockwood quickly made an impact — quite literally. He sent the 6’6” Nikita Zadorov tumbling into the Canucks’ bench with a huge hit in the neutral zone, one of three hits in the game. He was one of the few Canucks showing any sort of jump, which was enough to get him a look on a line with Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson when Bruce Boudreau pulled out the Line Blender 4000™.
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  • The spotlight was going to be on J.T. Miller after his freakout at Collin Delia last game, so he picked a pretty terrible time to have his most checked-out game of the year. It started with a bad penalty on his very first shift, unnecessarily hooking Chris Tanev behind the Calgary net, as far as he could possibly be from the Canucks’ net. 

  • Fortunately, Spencer Martin was dialed in like a talk radio station in an ‘88 Ford Ranger, robbing Elias Lindholm, one of four saves he made on that power play. He finished the first period with 13 saves on 13 shots, keeping the Flames off the board until the Canucks could right the ship.

  • The ship never quite righted. Early in the second period, Miller was covering at the point for a pinching Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He kept the puck in at the point and hacked it down the boards, but it was picked off. Instead of safely backing up into the neutral zone, especially because Horvat was already pressuring the puck, Miller moved up the boards instead, giving up a 2-on-1 behind him. Lindholm had all day and all of the night to pick his spot past Martin’s blocker.

  • Later on the power play, Miller lost the puck on a zone entry and took a hit. Frustrated, he slowly turned to the bench and went for a line change while another 2-on-1 developed behind him. Rasmus Andersson saucered a pass over Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s stick to Blake Coleman for the 2-0 goal.
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  • To be fair, Bo Horvat was also coasting to the bench on that line change when he instead needed to recognize the danger and beat feet on the backcheck. The optics just look so much worse for Miller when he was the one giving the puck away and was five feet from the bench. 

  • Five minutes later, the Flames hemmed in the Canucks’ fourth line and wore them out like a cheap pair of pants. Eventually, Mackenzie Weegar sent a shot through the tired traffic that Martin never even saw to make it 3-0.

  • The Canucks got one back with a goofy goal a minute later. Some hard work down low by the line of Conor Garland, Sheldon Dries, and Brock Boeser led to Dries trying to jam in a puck at one side of the goal only for Zadorov to accidentally chip the puck through the crease to the other side of the net, where Dries was there to bat it in out of air that was mediocre and underwhelming: mid-air.

  • Martin and Lockwood — which sounds like a lawyer firm — combined to keep the Canucks in the game early in the third period. Martin robbed Coleman with a fantastic blocker save. Then, on the rebound scramble, Lockwood got his stick out to deflect another Coleman shot over the open net. 
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  • Pettersson got the Canucks within one. He stole the puck on the forecheck and set up a point shot for Ethan Bear. Jacob Markstrom came out aggressively to make the save but couldn’t control the rebound with Horvat crashing the crease. Like the watery stuff in an unshaken mustard bottle, the puck squirted out to Pettersson at the side of the net and he put it in the net.

  • Despite a handful of chances, including a big Markstrom stop on Quinn Hughes, that’s as close as the Canucks would come. An early goalie pull gave the Canucks the extra attacker but they managed just one shot on goal in the final three minutes at 6-on-5.

  • Here’s the most frustrating moment. In the final minute, down by one goal, with the game on the line, J.T. Miller stood at the blue line and watched as the puck was chipped up the boards, making no effort to hustle to the boards to try to keep the puck in. If he had, he might have been in a position to do more than just wave his stick at Trevor Lewis, who knocked the puck down and passed it out. 
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  • There were some fans that excused Miller’s behaviour at the end of the game against the Jets because they said he’s a fiery competitor, who just wants to win so badly, and, in the heat of the moment, had a passionate reaction. And yet here, when the Canucks needed that fiery competitiveness and passion in this game, it was nowhere to be found.

  • It particularly stood out because a moment earlier, Pettersson had gone to his knees in the neutral zone, desperately doing everything he could to prevent a Flames counterattack that could have scored into the empty net. The difference in effort was stark.

  • The Hockey Night in Canada crew spent an entire two-minute segment during an intermission highlighting Miller’s lack of effort on the two goals against. “I can’t defend that,” said Kevin Bieksa. “I think you can be hard on your teammates and I think if you’re a .500 team and you’re mediocre — I like the fire and I like the passion, but certainly you’ve got to back it up with your work ethic.”