The Vancouver Canucks and Seattle Kraken entered Tuesday’s preseason game with two very different goals.
For the Kraken, this was their final game of the preseason. Their next game, in a week’s time, will be their first of the regular season. Therefore, this was an opportunity for most of their opening night lineup to get more playing time together — important for an expansion team consisting almost entirely of players who have never played together before.
Sure, there were one or two players scratched who will be on their roster, making room for a couple of Kraken to get one last crack at cracking the lineup, but it was pretty close to the full Seattle team.
The Canucks, on the other hand, were still holding auditions. They’ll have two more preseason games against the Edmonton Oilers before they kick off the regular season, games in which fans are likely to see Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes play with something more representative of the Canucks’ opening night lineup.
So Tuesday, for the Canucks, was about the bubble players — the ones with something to prove and everything to gain. Players like Matthew Highmore, Zack MacEwen, Will Lockwood, and Justin Dowling at forward and Jack Rathbone, Olli Juolevi, and Kyle Burroughs on defence.
The end result — a 4-0 loss for the Canucks — shouldn’t come as a surprise. What might come as a surprise is how well the Canucks played.
Sure, the finish wasn’t there, the type of finish that J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, and Brock Boeser could have provided if they were in the lineup, but the effort certainly was. The Canucks out-shot the Kraken 38-to-25 and were arguably the better team at 5-on-5.
“You know, it didn't feel like we were losing three-nothing — obviously they scored with 30 seconds to go — but the whole time we were thinking, it felt like we were controlling a lot of the pace,” said Jason Dickinson, who played a strong two-way game. “Penalties were a problem. We take a lot of our own momentum out of it when we take penalties like that.”
“38 shots,” he added, in mild disbelief. “Normally one of those is going to go in.”
Fortunately, it’s still the preseason, and what matters isn’t the end result but the process and who played well enough to get live another day on the Canucks roster as they continue to make cuts. That’s what head coach Travis Green will be looking at, particularly in specific roles, such as on the penalty kill.
“We give up two power play goals, well that was a big part of the game,” said Green. “But five-on-five, I liked a lot of our game. I think we only gave up seven shots after two periods and 12 for the game and had some good efforts.”
Speaking of good efforts, I gave it my all when I watched this game.
- Perhaps no one had more to prove than Vasily Podkolzin, who has been quiet so far this preseason. He wasn’t quiet on Tuesday.
- “I thought that was his best game,” said Green of Podkolzin. “His pace was higher, you could see he got his feet moving tonight, he was physical. It's funny, when you skate, when you get your feet moving, a lot of things open up in your game, not just with the puck but away from the puck, allowing you to be physical and use your strength.”
- Let’s focus in on Podkolzin, who took over nine minutes to get his first shift of the game because the Canucks took six minutes in penalties. When he finally hit the ice, he immediately looked more confident than an anti-vaxxer who just saw a Facebook meme that confirmed something they already believed. I liked this sequence in the defensive zone, where he finished his checks with a purpose, temporarily taking two Kraken players out of the play.
- Here’s another strong sequence from Podkolzin, attacking aggressively on the forecheck, then smartly swinging his stick around to knock the puck free for a turnover. He then opens himself up for a one-timer, which gets blocked, but he maintains possession and draws a penalty in the process. If he just does this all season, that would make him a useful, impactful player.
- But Podkolzin did more than just play a strong, physical, two-way game. He also showed some of the skill and drive that make him such an exciting prospect. Highmore created some space for him in the second period and Podkolzin used it, deking right around Mark Giordano with a lovely toe-drag, then drove to the net with a power move, only to see the puck slip free of his stick at the last moment and slide past the far post.
- “He looked really good,” said Jason Dickinson about Podkolzin. “He's getting given the chance to go and take the pucks in. They don't want him to just chip and chase, they don't want him to just be a forechecker. They want him to play his game. It's good for him to have that confidence from the coaching staff to do what he does best.”
- There were more Podkolzin moments that showed promise: a fantastic cross-ice saucer pass to Justin Dowling in the offensive zone, a rush down the left wing at the end of a shift for a wraparound, and several good reads and puck battles. It was great to see him settling in and playing so well.
- The penalty kill got lots of action tonight and the coaching staff took advantage, rotating in eight different forwards to audition for a spot: Will Lockwood, Sheldon Dries, Phil Di Giuseppe, Jason Dickinson, Matthew Highmore, and Justin Dowling all played 3+ minutes on the penalty kill, while Tanner Pearson and Bo Horvat had nearly two minutes.
- The Kraken had two power play goals on seven attempts. The first was a bad break for Lockwood, whose stick broke, giving him little ability to shut down passing lanes at the top of the zone. His best bet was just to stay in a shooting lane but he started chasing and Vince “Brooks &” Dunn took full advantage, teeing up a one-timer that rocketed into the top corner much like “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” rocketed to the top of the charts.
- “Locky's learning to kill at the NHL level and they're gonna make some mistakes, that's just the way it is,” said Green. “We want to get a look at some different guys. I prefer to use six guys if we can on the kill. Tonight we use eight.”
- Di Giuseppe and Dickinson continue to look like a strong duo, both on the penalty kill and at even-strength. They’ve been joined at the hip since the start of training camp, often with MacEwen on their wing, and they got in on the forecheck well in this game. There could be the makings of a strong third line there.
- “I've penalty killed a lot in practice the last eight years,” said Di Giuseppe with a rueful smile. “So I don't have as much game experience as I would like but I've taken it serious in practice the last number of years. You never know what opportunities you'll get.”
- Oliver Ekman-Larsson continued his strong preseason, playing over 25 minutes with Tyler Myers. He made some great stops defensively, using his reach and gap control to shut down rushes. He also looked great in transition, with one particularly nice solo dash on the power play that ended with a wicked-looking wristshot that was swallowed up by Philipp Grubauer.
- Ekman-Larsson was on the penalty kill for the second Kraken power play goal but that appeared to be more on his defence partner Myers, who got caught up too high in the Canucks’ formation and couldn’t get back to the net in time to prevent Ryan Donato from scooping a rebound up and over a sprawled Thatcher Demko.
- I felt Olli Juolevi had a better game on Tuesday, with some strong minutes on the penalty kill. There were still occasional mobility issues — he just does not turn quickly at all — but he showed some strong gap control in this game and did not get beat wide. Here’s one particular example where he had to give up the blue line on a 2-on-1, but ultimately nullified the rush like he was Reed Richards facing Galactus.
- And yet, it’s still tough to see how he makes the lineup over Jack Rathbone, who offers more offensively and was much stronger defensively in this game, using his skating to close down gaps aggressively.
- Finally, some numbers must be noted. The Canucks out-shot the Kraken 11-2 with Will Lockwood on the ice at 5-on-5 and out-attempted them 18-3. I’m still leaning towards Lockwood most likely starting the season in Abbotsford but he’s played very well in his last couple of preseason games.