I’ve never been fond of the phrase, “must-win game,” generally because it’s used for games that are much less musty than that phrase would indicate.
The only true “must-win games” are elimination games in the playoffs or games where a loss would keep you from getting to the playoffs in the first place. But, as pseudo-must-win games go, Saturday night’s game against the Dallas Stars was pretty close to the real thing.
Saturday night’s game against the Dallas Stars was already going to be one of their most important games of the season for the Vancouver Canucks. Its importance was only heightened by the Canucks’ struggles on their seven-game homestand.
The Canucks basically have two routes to the playoffs: finish third in the Pacific Division ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers or catch one of those two teams as well as the Stars to sneak into the second wild card spot.
The latter is a tough task given that the Stars have three games in hand and they were four points up on the Canucks heading into Saturday’s game. That made this game huge — the proverbial four-point game.
If the Canucks lost, they would fall six points behind the Stars, deepening the hole they dug in the first quarter of the season and making it less and less likely they could find a way out. A win in regulation, on the other hand, would bring the Canucks within two points and put the pressure on the Stars to make the most of their games in hand.
The Stars were within reach but the Canucks needed their stars to step up, especially considering the Canucks were playing their third game in four nights and coming off hard-fought, emotional games against tough opponents in the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild.
Elias Pettersson stepped up.
It’s not just that Pettersson scored the only two goals the Canucks would need. It’s that he also played a crucial role defensively. He was everywhere on Saturday night, including over two minutes of ice time on the Canucks’ perfect penalty kill and his best defensive play saved a goal and the game.
It was a wild sequence in the third period. The Stars were on the power play and Pettersson was pestering the point. He made a great read to drop back and break up a cross-seam pass but, in the process, his stick was knocked out of his hands.
That led to a ridiculous save by Thatcher Demko — more on that below — but the play continued. Pettersson retrieved his stick but ended up out of position as Esa Lindell took a pass with Demko down and out. Lindell had the whole net to shoot at but somehow put it off the post.
That “somehow” was Pettersson reaching his stick between Lindell’s legs and checking Lindell’s stick right as he was shooting the puck.
That’s a game-saving play but all Pettersson could think about postgame was how he had instead nearly cost the Canucks the game.
“First off, I wasn’t in the right position. I should have held the middle,” said Pettersson. “So now they made a good play and got a 2-on-1, so I just tried to make a desperation — slash, I don’t know what you want to call it, but I got a little piece of his stick and luckily he missed the net.”
He’s not wrong. While Pettersson was following his man to the battle along the boards, he should have instead stayed central as the safety valve in case the Canucks lost that battle. But you’re never going to have a perfect game as a hockey player and one of the most important things in hockey is how you respond when you make mistakes.
In this case, Pettersson responded to his mistake by making an incredible defensive play. Without that play, Lindell scores to tie the game and the Stars likely get at least a point, maybe two. Heck, it might not have just been a game-saving play; it might have been a season-saving play.
Okay, maybe that’s too much. I’ll try not to overly hyperbolize about how I watched this game.
- A lot happened in this game, so it might be easy to forget a couple of things. For instance, Matthew Highmore sat out with an upper-body injury, so Will Lockwood got into his first game of the season. He was pretty good in limited minutes, making his presence known physically with three hits, which is a better way than how the ghost that haunts my basement suite makes its presence known physically by knocking dishes off the shelf. Those dishes are expensive, Brenda!
- The Stars thought they had scored five minutes into the first period when Tyler Seguin set up a point-blank chance for Thomas Harley in transition. The Stars’ goal horn guy even got a little trigger happy, blasting the horn like they were “protesting” in Ottawa, only for referee Dan O’Rourke to immediately wave off the goal. Rightly so: Harley hit the post, which was a sign of things to come for the Stars, who repeatedly missed grade-A scoring chances.
- The officials got that call right but, continuing a recent trend, let a lot of what seemed like obvious penalties go. For instance, Alex Radulov ran into the back of Demko, knocking both his mask and his glove off but somehow that wasn’t goaltender interference. To be fair to Radulov, he immediately apologized, which is a little-used trick for evading any penalty.
- Then there was this elbow to the face of J.T. Miller by Roope Hintz that somehow went undetected. Hintz was using the old Simpsons trick: “As I skate, I’m going to elbow the air and if any part of you should fill that air, it’s your own fault.”
- Note to a certain Canucks defenceman who shall remain nameless: this is how you go to the ice to defend a 2-on-1. This is a clinic by Travis Dermott, who first focuses on taking away the pass with some excellent positioning, then suddenly swings towards the puck-carrier, Seguin, taking away his space to take a shot. As Seguin gets in deep and is forced to pass, Dermott swings around to block the pass. Beautiful.
- The early post from the Stars might have been a sign for the Canucks as well. Conor Garland rung a one-timer off the post five minutes into the second period. The rebound went off Tanner Pearson and trickled just wide of the net. I would say the Canucks were unlucky in this game except for everything else that happened.
- Less than a minute later, the Stars opened the scoring off of a dreadful play by Alex Chiasson. Quinn Hughes sent a breakout pass into the neutral zone but the puck clanked off Chiasson’s stick like it was made of bricks or Chiasson’s hands were bricks or the puck was a brick. All I know is bricks were involved. That sent the puck back into the Canucks’ zone and Jacob Peterson — who wears number 40 for the Stars but has one less “S” than Pettersson — sent a backhand past Demko.
- I enjoyed this moment of J.T. Miller deftly evading responsibility for a one-timer that he launched about 25 feet over the net off a pass from Quinn Hughes that was a little bit in front of him: “Bad pass. It’s not my fault. It can’t be my fault.”
- The Canucks poured on the pressure after the goal, with one particular shift hemming the Stars in for over a minute, with Brad Hunt getting a great chance cutting to the net. That forced an icing with a tired Stars group on the ice, but somehow they got a breakaway out of it. I say “somehow,” but again I know how: Tyler Myers and Oliver Ekman-Larsson got brutally burned by the speed of Luke Glendening, who had already been on the ice for a minute-and-a-half but still had the legs to blow by the Canucks’ 13 million dollar defence pair.
- Fortunately, Demko was equal to the task, robbing Glendening. From the outside, that seemed to be a turning point in the game, but it was evidently so unimportant to Demko that he didn’t even remember it happened. “I don’t remember,” Demko said postgame, sincerely. “Was there a breakaway in the second period?”
- Pettersson took over from there. On a power play drawn by Garland, Hughes put the puck on a tee for Pettersson and he put his driver to work, blasting the puck through Jake Oettinger’s five-hole. After the game, Pettersson admitted that he missed his shot — “I didn’t aim there” — and didn’t get all of the puck but if he had lied and said it was intentional, we all would have believed him. Pettersson is just way too honest.
- Pettersson definitely hit where he aimed on his second goal. It was a perfect shot as he flew down the right wing. With a forward, Joe Pavelski, covering for the defence, Pettersson was able to take advantage of a bigger gap as he gained the zone. Then he dragged the puck to evade Pavelski’s outreached stick, then fired the puck through Pavelski’s legs, off the crossbar and in.
- There wasn’t even a wobble on the puck, the shot was that perfect. As Bong Joon-Ho says, to me, that’s cinema. Is it too late to nominate Petterson for an Oscar?
- Things went all higgledy-piggledy in the third in the wild sequence mentioned in the intro. As much as Pettersson saved a goal, Demko did likewise. Lindell seemingly had a sure goal but Demko elevated his right pad while laying on the ice and stole the goal away. It’s yet another unreal save in a litany of unreal saves for Demko this season.
- Fun fact: the woman in the Demko skate jersey caught by the cameras saying, “Oh my god!” after Demko’s save is actually Demko’s mom, Danielle Demko. She captured the hearts of Canucks fans in that moment by capturing their exact feelings in that moment.
- “She actually just moved to Austin, Texas for work,” said Demko. “She's been out here for, like, two weeks and it just worked out nice where we were coming to town. She's going through a big moment in life there, moving away from San Diego and I felt like I was so far away and couldn't really help her out, so it was nice to see her. We had a day off yesterday, so we were able to grab some coffee and dinner last night and walk around downtown a little bit and just get some good time together.”
- I like Demko saying, “We were coming to town,” as if Austin isn’t a 3+ hour drive away from Dallas. Still, a lot closer than Vancouver.
- After that wild sequence, which Demko described as “chaos,” the Stars hit one more post for good measure before the Canucks put the game away. The Stars had Oettinger pulled for the extra attacker but the Canucks made it hard for them to gain the zone, with Pettersson and Boeser pressuring up ice, forcing a dump in that Myers cut off and turned the other way, eventually landing on the stick of Bo Horvat for the empty net goal.
- To add an exclamation point, the Canucks added one more. Garland and Pearson held the puck along the boards in the offensive zone for nearly twenty seconds to kill time off the clock, but when the puck came free it turned into a goal instead. Luke Schenn sent a shot towards the net that Miller tipped with one hand on his stick. Oettinger made the stop but with pretty much the entire Stars team on the boards for the battle, Miller had all kinds of time to pot the rebound.
- Against all odds, the playoff dream is still alive. The seven-game homestand nearly killed that dream but some gutsy wins on the road resuscitated it. Do you believe?