Making the playoffs in the all-Canadian North Division might depend on who loses to the Ottawa Senators.
The Canucks completed the sweep of their three-game series against the Senators on Thursday night and outscored them 16-to-3 over those three games. There are still some issues to sort out — the Canucks gave up 37 shots on goal after giving up 43 the night before — but it seems pretty clear that they are a much, much better team than the Senators.
But frankly, every team in the division is much, much better than the Senators, who have just one win in eight games to start the season. Every team is going to run roughshod over the Senators, particularly if Matt Murray continues to post a league-worst .859 save percentage.
In other words, you don’t gain much by beating the Senators, because every team’s going to do that. You lose a lot, however, if you lose to the Senators. And the Senators are going to win games, whether through sheer grit and determination or an opposing team taking them too lightly
Every game against the Senators is a winnable game — lose a game or two to them and you might be looking at those games at the end of the season when you’re a point or two out of the playoffs.
I don’t have to look at this game at the end of the season because the Canucks won. Instead, I just looked at it as it happened while I watched this game.
- I suggested that Braden Holtby needed a strong game after Thatcher Demko had two outstanding starts and Holtby delivered. He made 35 saves on 36 shots and looked far more comfortable than in his previous starts, particularly when it came to rebound control. The one game brought his season save percentage up to .906, which is league average so far this season.
- Holtby even added his first assist as a Canuck. Look out Demko, Holtby’s a real two-way threat out there. Better add some new dimensions to your game to keep up. I recommend the tenth dimension, which, according to string theory, is the dimension where “we arrive at the point in which everything possible and imaginable is covered.”
- While the Canucks gave up 37 shots, head coach Travis Green didn't seem overly worried. Holtby suggested they weren’t that bad defensively.
- “Shot quantity can be pretty misleading at times,” said Holtby. “I think our guys did an awesome job through this three-game set of making our job simplified. The most difficult thing as a goaltender is when there’s options, when the puck carrier has options, multiple options. I think we’ve done an outstanding job in this set of really limiting those, so you can focus on one or two things instead of three or four.”
- The Canucks power play only had two shots on four opportunities, but that doesn’t do justice to how good it looked in this game. The power play was able to generate zone entries with ease and picked apart the Senators’ penalty kill with pinpoint passing. Though they only hit the net twice, they had nine shot attempts and created chances from dangerous areas only to miss the net. The only real criticism is they seemed to sometimes look for the perfect play instead of taking the opportunities as they come.
- It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the one power play goal came from exactly that: taking an unexpected opportunity. Brock Boeser got the puck down low and looked for a passing option. So did every player on the Senators penalty kill, making sure, in particular, that Bo Horvat wasn’t available in the bumper position, where he had scored almost every Canucks power play goal to that point. That gave Boeser plenty of room to just walk out front and beat Murray from the top of the crease.
- “I’m still learning in that area and kind of reading the penalty kill from that position,” said Boeser. “We’ve been playing a few games and watched some film and we’ve felt that spot’s going to be open, just the way we’ve been moving the puck on the power play… After we break them down a bit, it opens up.”
- Boeser and his linemates made it 2-0 before the end of the first. Quinn Hughes jumped up the ice with Boeser and Elias Pettersson for a 3-on-2 and fed the puck across to Boeser on the left wing. His shot was blocked by a sprawling Nikita Zaitsev, but the puck rolled through to Pettersson on the top of the crease and he chipped it over Murray like he was making a golf trick shot video for Instagram.
- The Lotto Line was feeling it and had another dominant shift before the period ended. They held the puck in the offensive zone for just short of a full minute, partly with J.T. Miller and partly with Adam Gaudette. Eventually they got exactly what they wanted: Pettersson all alone in front with all the time in the world to pick his spot...and he hit the crossbar, then looked skyward, which is also where the puck went.
- Pettersson has now hit a league-high five posts and crossbars this season. While his early season slump wasn’t just bad luck, it also wasn’t not bad luck.
- There was a fun moment at the end of the first period where Boeser passed the puck back to his goaltender — a move common in soccer, but far more rare in hockey — and Holtby made a ridiculously bold pass between two oncoming forecheckers. It was secretly Chekhov’s puck-moving goaltender.
- “I love that. I feel like teams don’t do it as much as they should,” said Holtby. “You do it a lot in 3-on-3. If you have time as a goaltender, you can make a pass like that. It’s a benefit, it calms everything down a bit. The other team doesn’t really know where to go, because they can’t really go at you so much.”
- Holtby’s puck-moving ability paid off later in the second period. With the Senators changing, he played a quick pass up the right wing that Pettersson tipped in for Boeser. Skating in alone on Murray, he made no mistake, firing the puck just over the right pad and inside the far post. It was a perfect shot, nothing lucky about it.
- Not many people can make Hughes look slow on his skates, but Thomas Chabot managed it on a drive down the right wing. He burned past Hughes on the outside after a turnover in the neutral zone and tucked the puck five-hole on Holtby.
- Nils Höglander continues to be delightful to watch. He was skittering around the ice like a water strider, except a water strider that wins puck battles. In the third period, he made a fantastic play on Josh Brown on the boards to win the puck, then poked it past an onrushing Josh Norris to get it to Tanner Pearson. Murray stopped Pearson’s initial shot, but he swatted the rebound off the post, off Murray’s back and in.
- Late in the game, Höglander was in the box for a Jalen Chatfield penalty and the Canucks ended up killing off a 5-on-3. As a result, the skilled Swede was briefly on the penalty kill when he came out of the box. He looked like he belonged, immediately disrupting a scoring chance in the slot, knocking over the man in the bumper position, then picking off a pass and clearing the zone.
- Is that enough to get Höglander an audition on the penalty kill? “It was a nice play, it was an energetic play, he’s a hard worker,” said Green, “but no, it didn’t make me think about whether he’s ready to be a penalty killer or not.” Well, no harm in asking.
- Brady Tkachuk seems frustrated with his team’s seven-game losing streak. He was running around at the end of the game and found it when he challenged Gaudette near the benches, only to have Zack MacEwen step in instead, which didn’t go well for Tkachuk. After fisticuffs with MacEwen, he had a battle of wits with Jay Beagle at the bench, which didn’t seem to go well either.
- Tkachuk ended up punching the poor TD logo on his way off the ice, which has already been seized by the memers.
- The players are understandably much happier to talk to the press in the midst of a winning streak and Boeser and Hughes were having fun with it, laughing after Boeser got all the questions to start their joint Zoom call. “Sorry, I thought you guys were going to ask Quinn a question here soon,” laughed Boeser before answering the question. As soon as he knew Hughes was getting the next question, Boeser said, “Nice,” and leaned back in his chair to relax with a smile. Nice, indeed.