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IWTG: Blues are prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one Jake Virtanen)

Thatcher Demko made 36 saves and J.T. Miller scored two goals to dispatch the St. Louis Blues 3-1.
Pass it to Bulis - IWTG. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

“I’m Harley freakin’ Quinn!” declares Margot Robbie in the trailer for Birds of Prey, as she celebrates her freedom from the Joker by adopting a pet hyena, making a bunch of new friends, and blowing up a bunch of stuff.

I’m not sure about the hyena, but Jake Virtanen has certainly made some new friends and has been blowing the roof off Rogers Arena on a regular basis lately. He’s been given a little more freedom of late, playing on the top line with new pals Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller and he’s making the most of that newfound freedom by playing the best hockey of his career.

Virtanen now has 21 points in his last 25 games, but his last two games have been his most impressive, because he’s put up points in an unexpected way: with his playmaking. His two assists in this game give him back-to-back two-assist games and they haven’t been garbage assists: they’ve been genuinely fantastic passes with a purpose.

Where Virtanen has long been a shoot-first player, taking any and every opportunity to whip the puck towards the net, now he’s lifting his head up, anticipating the play, and finding players in open space.

“He is making some plays that he hasn't made in the past,” said head coach Travis Green after the game. “I don't know if that's from playing with these guys or if it's confidence, but he's got some more poise in his game. I think a lot of those plays last year he probably would have just shot the puck — and he's got a great shot, so we still want him to use it — but he's made some nice plays for sure.”

That’s been the unexpected part of Virtanen playing with Pettersson and Miller. Anyone could see how he could be a trigger man with his shot or play a simple north-south game down the win to make that line more dangerous off the rush; what was unpredictable is how he’s taken this opportunity and pulled out a new side of his game that wasn’t there before: a more thoughtful playmaking side.

He’s not a one-dimensional winger any more. He’s adding dimensions like Bing Bong and the emotions exiting Abstract Thought in Inside Out.  

Pretty soon he’ll be able to stroll around in neon outfits while carrying an oversized mallet and declare to the world, “I’m Jake freakin’ Virtanen!”

I watched this game.

  • Virtanen gave plenty of credit to his linemates, of course. “We always talk on the bench,” said Virtanen. “After every shift, we're always talking and even in practice, we do one drill or come down on three-on-two and line rushes and we'll talk about what we could do better next time.”
  • Pettersson and Miller handle Virtanen like CNN and the Weather Channel: constant updates. (NSFW link)
  • Early in the game, Quinn Hughes looked like he was still playing in the All-Star Game. He gave the puck away to fellow All Star David Perron, then hooked him, losing his stick in the process. On the delayed penalty, the stickless Hughes couldn’t get to Zach Sanford, who was sitting on the doorstep like Fred Sanford, and he ba ba banam’ed the puck into the net.
  • “He was a little bit cute tonight early,” said Green about Hughes. “He had a little bit too much backhand sauce going early in the game, and we usually let him play his way out of it. We definitely talked to him a little bit after the first 5-10 minutes.”
  • The struggles included a laughably bad too many men on the ice penalty, where either Alex Edler jumped on too soon or Hughes got off the ice too late: Hughes was just drifting towards the bench backwards, facing the play, so it was probably his fault. In any case, the rookie gets the blame, not the veteran, and Hughes was sent across the ice to serve the penalty.
  • The Blues controlled the puck for most of the first, though the Canucks got some great chances of their own. Unfortunately, Jake Allen threw a wrench into their plans, stopping Loui Eriksson on a rebound chance, getting his blocker on a breakaway backhand by Pettersson, and stoning Bo Horvat after he picked off a pass at the blue line.
  • The Canucks got to Allen in the second on a smart play by Virtanen. He carried the puck into the offensive zone down the right wing, then pulled up, faked like he was going to dump the puck around the boards, and instead fed Chris Tanev at the point. The fake seemed to throw off the Blues defensive coverage and J.T. Miller snuck into the slot unobserved, took Tanev’s pass, and ripped the puck past Allen like he was standing still. Allen must have been temporarily disconnected from the Speed Force.
  • Another nifty pass from Virtanen set up Miller’s second goal of the game. Pettersson broke out with the puck 3-on-2 and, instead of mindlessly charging straight to the net as he has in the past, Virtanen slowed down, shaded behind Pettersson, got the drop pass, and quickly relayed it to Miller for the one-timer. That was a prime chance for Virtanen to take the shot, but apparently Virtanen will only shoot on a chance that is divisible by more than one and itself.
  • Speaking about his second assist of the game, Virtanen talked about how he anticipated the play: “Before Petey passed to me, I kind of looked over and I already saw Millsy opening up for his one timer and I wanted to get it and fake like I was going to shoot and give it over. Just with how fast it was, I got it and sent it over right away and Millsy was ready for it.”
  • Beyond the points, Virtanen also drew a penalty after he picked off a pass with a great read in the offensive zone. He was flying tonight.
  • Meanwhile, Thatcher Demko was aces in the Canucks net, making some superb saves all night. One of his best came on some friendly fire: J.T. Miller threw the puck up the middle and it banked off Brayden Schenn’s skate, forcing Demko to flash out his left pad to make the stop.
  • “I might hassle him for a dinner or something,” joked Demko after the game. “He scored two tonight so you can't really hold it against him.”
  • Demko thoroughly frustrated Jaden Schwartz in this game, stopping him five times. On one chance, Schwartz was so vexed that he slammed his stick against the boards. And then Demko went on to make his best save of the game off Schwartz, just to really rub it in. He slid across on what looked like a sure goal, sealed off the bottom of the net with his left pad, and proved that his Schwartz was bigger.
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  • The Pettersson line provided the scoring, but the Horvat line might have been the Canucks’ best line. They matched up against one of the best lines in the NHL in Zach Sanford, Ryan O’Reilly, and David Perron and battled them to a standstill. Horvat was especially good, firing a team-high five shots on goal, including one off a vintage BoHoToe-Drag, the type of move we saw frequently in his rookie season.
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  • “I know! I haven't had one of those in a long time,” said Horvat with a smile when I mentioned it’s been a while since he pulled off that move. “I wish I would have scored on it but it definitely feels good to know I can still do it.”
  • When asked if, perhaps, opponents are aware of that move, Horvat said ruefully, “I think a lot of guys especially coming out of junior might have seen that a couple of times. But sometimes I catch guys off guard a little bit and it works but most of the time the NHL that's not going to work.”
  • Down by one, the Blues poured on the pressure, to the point that a late power play for the Canucks looked like a power play for the Blues, as they hemmed the Canucks into their own zone. That’s in spite of the Canucks actually playing with six players on the ice for a decent chunk of the shift. It’s easy for the refs to miss that it’s 6-on-4 when the four players have the puck the entire time.
  • Finally, the Canucks sent out the Insurance Line of Pearson, Horvat, and Eriksson to seal the win as the Blues pulled the goaltender for the extra attacker. The line is money with an empty net, so of course Eriksson got the puck, evaded two Blues, and fed Horvat for the empty net goal with 0.6 seconds left on the clock.
  • What is Green thinking when he sends out the Horvat line with an empty net at the other end of the ice? “I’m hoping Loui gets the puck,” said Green with a big grin.