Brock Boeser was supposed to be a healthy scratch for Saturday night’s game against the Arizona Coyotes.
That was the plan in the morning. With Jack Studnicka returning from a lower-body injury, Vancouver Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau decided to send a message to his team, which was coming off back-to-back 5-1 losses. The bearer of this message had to be a significant player — Boudreau chose Boeser.
There are some very good reasons for Boudreau to make Boeser a healthy scratch. Boeser has been struggling defensively this season to a far greater degree than previous seasons.
His goal differential at 5-on-5 is minus-10 — the worst on the Canucks — and it’s not just bad luck. He’s also last on the Canucks in expected goals percentage — a statistic that measures shot quality in addition to shot quantity — and it’s primarily because he has the team’s highest rate of expected goals against.
That’s the kind of statistical profile that one might expect to lead to a healthy scratch, particularly for the second-highest-paid forward on the team. As much as Boeser has been picking up points, the Canucks biggest issues are defensive ones. The Canucks need more from Boeser defensively, so sending a message with a scratch is eminently justifiable.
There’s just one issue: this was Hockey Fights Cancer night for the Canucks, an event that is deeply personal to Boeser, who lost his father, Duke Boeser, this past May. Among his many difficult health issues, Duke had two bouts with lung cancer. For Brock, it was a shock to miss a game where he was hoping to honour his late father.
“It was a very important game for me and my family,” said Boeser. “So, when I came in this morning and my name wasn’t on the whiteboard, it hurt — it hurt bad.”
It’s something that his teammates are also acutely aware of and one has to wonder how they felt about their teammate — and friend — being scratched for a game that meant so much to him. If the intent was to send a message, the wrong message might have been delivered.
To top it off, Elliotte Friedman reported on Hockey Night in Canada prior to the game that Boeser’s agent has been given permission from the Canucks “to talk to other teams about a potential move.”
But when the Canucks took the ice for warmup, Boeser was on the ice taking line rushes. According to Boudreau, Dakota Joshua wasn’t feeling right after the morning skate, though he was vague on the details.
“Dakota woke up from his nap and there was something wrong,” said Boudreau. “So, he came in really early and we were here. He tried with the doctors to see if it was good and he couldn’t work it, so I phoned Boes and said, ‘Boes, you’re in.’”
So Boeser took the ice with “Dukey” on the back of his light purple Hockey Fights Cancer jersey, ready to play for Duke. According to Boudreau, the fact that it was Hockey Fights Cancer night didn’t even cross his mind.
“I didn’t even know,” said Boudreau. “Honest to goodness, last night I made up my mind. When I came in today, I didn’t even think about it until they were talking about it after practice.”
Honestly, that’s not exactly surprising. There have been rumours of poor communication within the Canucks organization for a while and Hockey Fights Cancer night wasn’t even on the Canucks’ initial theme night schedule — it was a late addition in early November after the start of the season.
In fact, the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer month is November, with other NHL teams holding their Hockey Fights Cancer nights during the month. The Canucks are the outlier with their night coming in December. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising it wasn’t on Boudreau’s radar; it probably wasn’t even on his calendar.
But it all worked out in the end. Boeser scored the tying goal that sent the game to overtime and nearly scored the winner on a breakaway in the extra frame.
“He played mad, which I’m sure he was,” said Boudreau. “I was hoping he would score in overtime, it would have made it a pretty cool thing.”
It was still a pretty cool thing when I watched this game.
- One thing to keep in mind when looking at Boeser’s season so far is that he suffered a hand injury before the start of the season that required surgery. He rushed himself back in time for opening night, saying, “It’s good enough to play, so that’s all that matters.” He then missed time a couple of weeks later when the scar from his surgery opened up, so it might be fair to say that he hasn’t been at 100 per cent all season.
- After the Canucks couldn’t capitalize on a couple of early chances, the Coyotes were first on the board. Oliver Ekman-Larsson's pass to Elias Pettersson was off the mark, then the veteran defenceman failed to pick up Christian Fischer as he darted up the middle and took a stretch pass for a breakaway. Spencer Martin didn’t seal off his five-hole with his stick and Fischer’s quick shot beat him under his stick and pad.
- Martin made an outstanding save a few minutes later on a Canucks power play. Nick Bjugstad and Lawson Crouse broke out for a shorthanded 2-on-1 and Ekman-Larsson couldn’t take away the pass, but Martin came sliding across to get his right pad on Crouse’s shot, taking away the net like the tuna in Finding Nemo.
- The Canucks made like the Empire and struck back. The Coyotes’ penalty kill was careful to take away Pettersson’s shooting lane but they couldn’t simultaneously take away his passing lane to Bo Horvat. He put a hard pass right on Horvat’s tape and the Canucks’ captain deflected the puck five-hole for his 18th goal of the season.
- The Coyotes regained the lead with a power play goal of their own. Ethan Bear couldn’t clear the puck after Bo Horvat won the faceoff, allowing the Coyotes to get set up. The puck came around to Jacob Chychrun and he sniped a perfect shot into the top corner on the far side.
- When I’ve talked to Canucks defencemen about the penalty kill, they have all said that it’s their job to take away the far side of the net, leaving the middle and short side to the goaltender. Chychrun made a nice play to pull the puck inside to change the angle, but Bear’s angle was off too. He needs to take a better angle going out to Chychrun so that the far side of the net isn’t an option.
- It looked like the Canucks had tied the game late in the second period when Jack Studnicka suddenly remember that he used to be a stud prospect and made a brilliant toe-drag deke around Josh Brown, then sent a nearly-as-brilliant hook pass to Nils Åman behind him. But as Åman got two chances at the puck, J.J. Moser went crashing into the net, knocking it off its moorings before the puck could cross the line.
- Here’s the thing: you’re allowed to score a goal when the net is off. Rule 25.2 says, “A goal will be awarded when an attacking player, with an imminent scoring opportunity, is prevented from scoring as a result of a defending player or goalkeeper displacing the goal post, either deliberately or accidentally.”
- The play went under review and they called it no goal, reasoning that “Åman did not have an imminent scoring opportunity prior to the goal posts being displaced,” which is nonsense. According to Friedman, it was because it wasn’t the first shot after the net came off, which is evidently the secret meaning of “imminent” to the NHL. Only, Åman took his first shot before the net came off its moorings — the screenshot below shows the puck already heading to the net before Moser collides with it. The actual first shot after the net came off was the one that went in. The NHL’s reasoning falls apart under the slightest scrutiny, surprising no one.
- The Canucks still got a power play out of it as Åman’s non-goal came on a delayed penalty. That turned into a long 5-on-3 shortly after but the Canucks made a mess out of the two-man advantage. J.T. Miller directed traffic, telling Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson to switch spots, but then fired a shot wide that careened out of the zone. Shortly after, Miller gave the puck away on a telegraphed backhand pass to the point. It was a major momentum killer.
- “It’s a big belief of mine that if you can kill off a 5-on-3, you’re usually winning the game,” said Boudreau, who suggested that what they did wrong on the 5-on-3 was corrected later when they got a 4-on-3 power play in overtime.
- Boudreau played a hunch in the third period, bumping Boeser up to play with Pettersson and Ilya Mikheyev. It paid dividends — Pettersson drove up the middle with Boeser on his left and carried the puck into traffic, drawing defenders to himself to create space for Boeser. Troy Stecher managed to sweep the puck away from Pettersson, but it went right to Boeser. Unlike 2000’s Canadian post-grunge band Default, Boeser wasn’t wasting his time and quickly whipped a shot short side past Karel Vejmelka to tie the game 2-2.
- With a whopping six hits in this game, Luke Schenn past Brooks Orpik for the most career hits by a defenceman in NHL history — at least, since the 2005-06 season when they started recording the statistic. The record-setting hit was appropriately impactful, sending Chychrun crashing hard into the boards and to the ice.
- “[Chychrun] was my D partner when he first came into the league as an 18 year old,” said Schenn with a grin. “Before overtime, I thanked him for that, skating into my corner there on the power play. We had a good chuckle about it.”
- Quinn Hughes saw his ice time slip over the 30-minute mark thanks to a series of power plays, Ekman-Larsson briefly leaving the game after a painful knee-on-knee hit, and the game going to overtime. His final ice time of 30:05 was a season-high, though not quite a career-high — he’s bested that total three time in his career, with his highest coming in an overtime game against the Calgary Flames last season when he reached 31:07.
- Pettersson had a breakaway chance at the end of regulation and Boeser had another a couple minutes into overtime, but the two couldn’t find a way past Vejmelka. Fortunately, the Coyotes took an awful too many men penalty to give the Canucks a 4-on-3 power play. It was the Canucks’ eighth power play of the game, as the Coyotes took a plethora of pinatas…er, dumb penalties.
- This time on the power play, Miller disguised his previously-telegraphed backhand pass with a fake shot, drawing a penalty killer into his shooting lane. That opened up a massive shooting lane for Hughes from the point and he stepped into a slap shot. Like the puck was seeking to start a paleo diet, Horvat gave it an against-the-grain tip, getting the puck past Vejmelka for his 19th goal of the season.
- Let’s be blunt: the Arizona Coyotes are not a good team. Barely scraping by the Coyotes in overtime is not exactly a confidence booster. But there were some positive things to take from this game, particularly emotionally: Boeser getting a big goal, Schenn getting the hits record, and coming back in the third period. Those are things the team can feel good about and potentially build on.