It’s been easy to dismiss the results of the games during the Vancouver Canucks’ preseason.
Sure, they lost most of their games but they were icing half-complete lineups, with a large contingent of AHL-caliber players, while playing against much stronger opposition. It was no surprise that they lost and, besides, winning the games wasn’t the point — they were focused on the players battling to get into the lineup.
On Saturday night, however, they played their final game of the preseason with pretty much their entire opening night lineup. They were facing an Edmonton Oilers team without Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. And, for most of the game, the Canucks looked terrible.
What went wrong?
Perhaps the answer is in the premise: the Canucks were playing with their full lineup for the first time. That itself might be enough to explain why they looked so discombobulated all game. But they open the regular season on Wednesday and have no more preseason games to find their flow.
“You're not playing with the full lineup much really at all, missing people,” said J.T. Miller. “You're just trying to get your bearings, I think. You want to win these games, you're just trying to come together as a team and obviously the closer we get to the end of the preseason it's more and more of our squad.”
Maybe there’s no reason to be worried. It’s the preseason and the whole point of the preseason is that there are no points at stake. Maybe everything will click once the regular season starts and points are on the line.
“The good news is it’s the last preseason game. I think we’re all ready to play,” said J.T Miller, adding later, “We’re ready for the real thing, I don’t know what else to say.”
The Canucks do have time over the next couple of days to review video, nail down the final roster, and get a couple more practices in before they head to Edmonton on Wednesday to kick off a six-game road trip. They can still patch over the holes in the drywall of their system and give it a fresh coat of paint before Wednesday. They just have to hope the foundation and framing are solid enough to hold all season.
I decided to moonlight as a housing inspector after I watched this game.
- The early highlight of the game was referee Chris Schlenker accidentally declaring that a penalty was to “Ottawa number — pardon me, Edmonton number 20.” Look, we expect Sportsnet and CBC to cater to Ontario but now even the referees wish they were reffing a game in Toronto?
- The Canucks penalty kill has been very, very bad in the preseason, as the Canucks have auditioned seemingly a dozen forwards to fill the holes left by Jay Beagle and Brandon Sutter. They gave up another power play goal on Saturday, as an Evan Bouchard blast from the point found its way through traffic like a motorcycle in California.
- The Oilers made it 2-0 after an ugly pass by Luke Schenn. Colton Sceviour moved in and hooked a pass back to Brandon Perlini for the wide-open net. That’s partly on Schenn but also on Nils Höglander, who got caught puck-watching and didn’t shoulder-check to pick up Perlini heading to the net. Shoulder-checking is also extremely important when changing lanes in California, because of the aforementioned motorcycles.
- Jack Rathbone has appeared in every game of the preseason and, at this point, it’s all but certain he’s made the team. He wasn’t helped in this game by Schenn, who struggled mightily, but he was still able to showcase his patience in the offensive zone that regularly makes opposing players look silly.
- The Canucks power play hasn’t been much better than the penalty kill but, to be fair, they have yet to have their full first unit together. They gave up a shorthanded goal to the Oilers when Quinn Hughes stickhandled into danger and Miller, as the last man back, completely failed to cover for him. Kailer Yamamoto made them pay with a slick move on the breakaway to make it 3-0.
- The shorthanded goal was a shame because Hughes played a pretty flawless defensive game otherwise. His gap control was flawless all game, shutting down offensive rushes with ease. I particularly liked this play, where he negated a potential 2-on-1 and not only prevented the pass across but stole the puck and immediately cleared the zone. That play is nowhere near as easy as Hughes made it look.
- Head coach Travis Green shuffled the lines midway through the game, looking for a spark. He seemed to find it when he put Vasily Podkolzin, Elias Pettersson, and Nils Höglander together, which makes sense. They’re like the fat guy, skinny guy, and medium guy in Nintendo Ice Hockey — they complement each other perfectly.
- According to Green, it wasn’t quite game theory that saw him put that line together: “Just changed some lines tonight. It just so happened they were sitting in front of me, to be honest.”
- Whatever the reason they ended up together, the three meshed well, nearly connecting on a gorgeous passing play in the third period. Höglander barged into the zone, drawing two defenders to him before one-handing the puck to Podkolzin, who sent a no-look pass back to Pettersson in the slot, but he wedged the shot over the net. Still, as a proof of concept for that line’s potential, it wasn’t half-bad.
- The Canucks got on the board a moment later thanks to their fourth line. Their forechecking forced a turnover to Justin Dowling, who backhanded it off the boards to Matthew Highmore. The winger drove to the net, then sent a shot directly to the stick of Phil Di Giuseppe, who sent it flying up like he was tossing pizza dough to beat goaltender Stuart Skinner.
- With a few minutes remaining and down by two, the Canucks pulled Thatcher Demko for the extra attacker and poured on the pressure. After a low shot by Pettersson created some chaos, Hughes sent a hard pass to Miller at the side of the net and he made like he was married to Al Gore: Tipper.
- “We haven’t done 6-on-5 yet,” said Miller of the goal. “Kinger [assistant coach Jason King] drew it up on the bench and that was my spot. I saw it open the play before that, so I just went back to that spot and Huggy made a good read by selling the shot. Sometimes tips go in, you get lucky.”
- After the goal, Pettersson drew a penalty with a nifty deke to the net, giving the Canucks a 6-on-4 with their net empty. That led to a wild final ten seconds and a last-second chance for Bo Horvat that got tipped over the net off a setup by Miller. Honestly, after they didn’t look great for most of the game, it was nice to see that the Canucks’ top players could still create some danger.
- “I liked the push at the end,” said Green. “I didn’t think it was a great game. Overall, I thought we played better in Edmonton, quite frankly.”
- Hopefully, they can play better in Edmonton on Wednesday as well.