It was a promising debut for Jack Rathbone, at least.
Much like Kole Lind’s first NHL game last week, Rathbone was one of the few good things for the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night. The young defenceman didn’t play a lot of minutes and was sheltered from the Oilers’ two big guns, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, as much as possible, but he certainly didn’t look out of place.
“I think he was excited before the game, maybe a little bit nervous,” said Alex Edler, who has seen many young defencemen enter the organization in his time with the Canucks. “He got that first shift out of the way and I think you can see there’s potential there for sure. He’s a good skater, he’s good with the puck. He’s a good kid and has the right attitude.”
It was a whirlwind of a day for Rathbone, who only found out in the morning that he would be in the lineup.
“I didn’t have much of a nap, I can tell you that for sure,” said Rathbone.
He was quick to call his parents and text family and friends, but the message that meant the most was from his younger brother, Teddy. Rathbone is very close with Teddy, who is on the autism spectrum. He even delayed entering college by one year so he could spend more time with his brother.
“It was pretty cool. On the way to the rink, my dad shot me a video of him just telling me good luck and telling me he loved me,” said Rathbone. “It was one of those moments you never forget.”
On the ice, there was one particular shift in the second period that stood as his “welcome to the NHL” moment in two different ways. It started in the offensive zone, where J.T. Miller sent him the puck at the point. Like he’s done so many times in the NCAA and AHL, Rathbone wound up for a slap shot, only to fake it and step around his check to create a more dangerous opportunity from the left faceoff circle.
It was the type of confident move that you don’t necessarily expect from a rookie defenceman playing his first game and affirmation that he does have the skill to play his game at this level.
“I think those first couple pucks that came low to high, I was definitely just letting it go, just try and get pucks on net — get it down there and try and create some havoc,” said Rathbone. “But after that I started to feel a little bit more like myself and have a little bit more poise with the puck up there.”
A moment later, his defence partner, Tyler Myers, jumped up the right side of the ice and sent a low shot that Mike Smith kicked out to Connor McDavid. On his right side was Leon Draisaitl. Suddenly, the 21-year-old in his first NHL game was staring down the two leading scorers in the NHL on a 2-on-1.
“It was a little bit of a welcome-to-the-NHL moment,” said Rathbone. “The second it turned over, I took three hard strides with my back to him, just so I could get my feet under myself. Then just trying to play the middle. Honestly, I was trying to give [Thatcher Demko] the shot. Luckily it jumped over their stick.
“It was definitely a pretty cool moment.”
Rathbone kept a good gap, making sure there was no easy option for McDavid. When he went to the ice to try to take away the pass, he forced McDavid to make a difficult saucer pass, which is why the puck skipped over Draisaitl’s stick.
There, in that one shift, Rathbone showed that he can make moves offensively and also faced two of the most dangerous players in the NHL on an odd-man rush.
Rathbone credited Myers for helping him treat his first game just like it was any other game thanks to his clear communication, but Myers wasn’t the only veteran who spoke to him.
“At least 10 or 12 of the guys grabbed me, pulled me aside, and said, ‘Just go play. Be confident in your abilities and go have fun,’” said Rathbone. “Guys like Eagle on the back end and [Nate Schmidt], and I’m living with [Quinn] Hughes right now, so every one of them had a little something to say and definitely helped me feel a bit more comfortable.”
I wish Edler, Schmidt, and Hughes were available to say something to me to make me feel more comfortable before I watched this game.
- At 5-on-5, Rathbone held his own, with the Canucks out-shooting the Oilers 7-5 and out-attempting them 15-13 when he was on the ice. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he mainly saw third and fourth-line competition but that’s still pretty good for a rookie facing NHL players for the first time.
- “He was good,” said head coach Travis Green. “You can see he's got the skating legs, he's got a good pass. He got his release, his shot away a few times. It's sneaky, deceptively hard, and he gets it through. He played well.”
- As for the rest of the game, the season marches on to its inevitable conclusion. A fun new possibility has entered the picture, however. The Buffalo Sabres won on Tuesday; if they win their two remaining games and the Canucks lose the rest of theirs, the two teams would be tied for last place. The Sabres would still officially finish last in the NHL because they have fewer regulation and overtime wins, but that’s still pretty neat.
- Meanwhile, in the North Division, if the Ottawa Senators win their game against the Montreal Canadiens tomorrow, they’ll actually have a higher points percentage than the Canucks. The Canucks have pretty good odds at this point of finishing last in the North Division.
- The game started off incredibly well. The Canucks opened the scoring just 34 seconds into the game. Nils Höglander moved in 2-on-1 with Brock Boeser, fought off a check from behind by Jesse Puljujarvi, and slipped a pass under the ankles of Darnell Nurse as they drove to the net. The puck took a weird deflection and caromed off both of Boeser’s legs and into the net. It was a reverse-Orwellian goal: two legs good.
- Kole Lind had another strong game, leading the Canucks in corsi and adding a physical element to his game. His hit on William Lagesson on the forecheck rattled the boards and nearly led to a great scoring chance as he lifted a saucer pass over the back of the net to Bo Horvat that was sadly intercepted.
- The Canucks held onto their one-goal lead for over half the game, but things went awry late in the second period and the Oilers scored three goals in five minutes. It was costly mistakes: turnovers that led to goals or penalties and mental mistakes, like a Tanner Pearson penalty that took the Canucks off the power play just ten seconds in.
- “It is the second period, where you have the longer change...We talked about quick-upping the puck and getting into the other zone, especially in the second period,” said Green. “But when you do get hemmed in...I do think that we've played a lot of hockey and we might be a little bit tired now, so when those situations happen, you're probably out of gas a little sooner too.”
- The Oilers' first goal came off a bad giveaway by J.T. Miller, as he blindly reversed the puck along the boards, not knowing that McDavid was there. McDavid found Draisaitl, Draisaitl found the top shelf, and the blade of Miller’s stick found the surface of the ice at high velocity, as he slammed it down in frustration.
- The Oilers’ power play made it 2-1, then 3-1, in short succession. Draisaitl blasted a one-timer for his second goal of the game, then Evan Bouchard took a wrist shot from the point that found its way through traffic like a Martin Scorcese tracking shot.
- The Canucks had a much stronger third period as they pushed to come back from their two-goal deficit but were unable to get another puck past Mike Smith. Then Miller gave away another puck at the blue line, then gambled that Quinn Hughes could rescue his muffed pass and jumped up in the offensive zone instead of backchecking. Nurse jumped up in the rush and finished off Josh Archibald’s pass to make it 4-1.
- Honestly, the highlight of the game wasn’t on the ice, it was in the broadcast booth. John Shorthouse and John Garrett were in rare form. Garrett talked about how proud he was of his English degree from Queen’s University and stated that he’s the only one who can fix Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette’s issues with throws to first base because he's a one-time Ontario baseball champion.
- Their best moment came midway through the second period. As Garrett opined at length that McDavid probably doesn’t care that much about reaching 100 points this season, Shorthouse shot back, “In the words of Taylor Swift, ‘The more you say, the less I know.’”
- I certainly didn’t have “John Shorthouse dropping Taylor Swift references” on my Canucks season bingo card. That’s a lyric from “willow,” the lead single off Swift’s 2020 Evermore album. Legendary play-by-play work.