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IWTG: Canucks quell the Canadiens in chaotic home opener

Tyler Toffoli nets hattrick in return to Rogers Arena, but Canucks prevail in the shootout
Pass it to Bulis - IWTG. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

The Canucks didn’t want to pay Tyler Toffoli in free agency, so it seemed like he was determined to make them pay on the ice.

This wasn’t just the wildest game of the season, it was one of the wildest Canucks games in years. And Toffoli was front and centre for the Montreal Canadiens after the Canucks were unable — or unwilling — to re-sign him after trading for him last season. 

Every time the Canucks scored a goal, it seemed like Toffoli was there to answer immediately. When he scored his hattrick goal in the third period to give the Canadiens their first lead of the game, it felt like the dagger. 

After Jacob Markstrom shutout the Canucks in his first game against his former team, it almost seemed inevitable that a Toffoli hattrick would win the game in his return to Rogers Arena.

Instead, the player whose injury last season led to the acquisition of Toffoli had an answer of his own. Brock Boeser scored an electrifying goal, a superb snipe past Carey Price, less than a minute after Toffoli’s hattrick marker to make it 5-5.

Toffoli had one last chance to respond for the Canadiens in the shootout. He was the final shooter and needed to score to extend the shootout. He skated in, faked a slap shot, then snapped the puck past Braden Holtby, only to find the post.

Fortunately for the Canucks, Toffoli only put the puck in the net three times when I watched this game.

  • This game was an absolute thrill ride, with goals back and forth at an astounding rate. It was hard not to imagine, however, how much better it could have been with a crowd in the building, particularly with the way Canadiens fans show up in droves at Rogers Arena. The atmosphere would have been incredible.
  • “Especially our first game at Rogers Arena, we miss the fans,” said Boeser. “But we’ve been playing like this for a bit now, we played in the bubble like this… You’ve got to dig deep within your team and find ways to create energy, find ways to create momentum.”
  • The best way to create momentum? Drawing penalties. Tyler Myers drew a hook on Tomas Tatar just 18 seconds into the game and it was a sign for how the game would go. The Canucks were moving their feet well all game and drew six penalties, taking only one of their own. That proved to be the difference maker because the power play started clicking like one of those multicolour pens everyone had in elementary school.
  • The Canadiens’ penalty kill was in a groove. The Canucks’ power play was mired in a slump. It was the perfect time for each of their fortunes to drastically reverse.
  • Bo Horvat opened the scoring with a power play goal from the bumper position thanks to a perfectly-placed one-touch pass from J.T. Miller. Like Marty McFly on a skateboard, Horvat is riding the bumper to success.
  • Despite three goals from the power play and two goals from his linemates, Elias Pettersson didn’t pick up a point. He played well, however, and a lot more confidence with the puck, particularly on a first period breakaway where he went between his legs to try to beat Price. It was a John Wick, “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back,” kind of moment. 
  • The Canadiens may have been a little overconfident in their penalty kill, which had killed off 12 of 14 penalties heading into this game. As Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, “You lack discipline!” That’s why Josh Anderson hammered Quinn Hughes into the Canucks’ net away from the play. Hughes took it in good humour, though. Literally humour, because he was laughing.
  • Toffoli tied the game early in the second period when Travis Hamonic chased a hit across the ice and Miller didn’t cover for him. Toffoli was forgotten by the Canucks, just like in free agency, so he gave them something to remember him by: a snapshot past Holtby’s glove.
  • Like Gia Gunn, Tyler Motte was absolutely feeling all of his oats in this game. The Canucks out-shot the Canadiens 10-to-1 when he was on the ice at even strength and he scored a lovely goal to regain the lead. On a 2-on-1 with Nate Schmidt, Motte looked pass the whole way, then made a slight move to change the angle and fired the puck past Price.
  • Toffoli responded again, this time on the power play. Hamonic chased the puck all the way to the point off a Canadiens’ zone entry, leaving Schmidt back as the only defenceman in front of the net. Nick Suzuki took advantage with a pinpoint pass for Toffoli to tap into the empty net.
  • The Canucks power play struck again to give the Canucks their third lead. This time, it was all about puck recovery, as they hemmed the Canadiens penalty kill in for nearly a minute-and-a-half. They kept winning puck battles and tiring out the penalty kill until finally a Hughes point shot got to the net and Boeser was able to bang in the rebound on the backhand.
  • “I thought we worked really hard at getting pucks back,” said Miller. “When you’re on the penalty kill and the other team’s getting pucks back, your legs start to not work anymore. It’s really hard to defend at that point. We had it in-zone for over a minute a couple of times.”
  • Quinn Hughes played over 27 minutes in this game and struggled at times. He was a minus-4 and one of them was definitely on him: the Canadiens’ third goal to make it 3-3 came when Brendan Gallagher caught Hughes flat footed and sped past him to the goal to tip in a pass from Tatar.
  • The Canucks power play had one more goal in them to give the Canucks their fourth lead of the game. Once again, it was Horvat from the bumper, but this time Miller relayed the pass through Boeser down low, a role that Toffoli played when he was with the Canucks. Like he was Bill Hader, Boeser nailed his Toffoli impression, putting the puck right in Horvat’s wheelhouse for the one-timer.
  • Antoine Roussel hasn’t had a great start to the season and wasn’t at his best against the Canadiens. One moment in the third was emblematic of his struggles: on a breakout, he blew the zone early, causing a turnover to Shea Weber. The Canucks got the puck right back, but Roussel failed to get the puck in deep for a line change past Weber. Those are the kinds of moments that can drive a coach batty.
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  • The Canadiens tied the game yet again, this time off an ugly giveaway by Tyler Myers. Hughes got his stick on a puck to break up a 3-on-2, but instead of clearing the loose puck out of danger, Myers swatted it straight up the middle, where Kasperi Kotkaniemi, who sent a knuckler past Holtby.
  • Then Toffoli gave the Canadiens their one-and-only lead. Hughes and Adam Gaudette messed up a switch in coverage and Toffoli got inside position on Gaudette as a result. Toffoli tipped in Petry’s dish to make it 5-4.
  • “When they took a one-goal lead at the end, we had a good attitude on the bench,” said Boeser. “We knew we could get another one.”
  • They could and did get another one. Miller weaved through three Canadiens to gain the zone, then found Boeser in a soft spot in their coverage above the right faceoff circle. Boeser stepped into it like a new pair of board shorts and hammered it past Price, who was screened perfectly by Pettersson. 
  • An overtime that was just as wild as regulation ensued, but suddenly neither team could score. The shots were 6-0 for the Habs in overtime, but the Canucks seemed to have just as many chances that missed the net or were blocked. Holtby stopped all six shots from the Canadiens to take the game to the shootout.
  • Miller got one goal in the shootout by skating wide to the left, then practically sideways, making only enough forward movement to avoid getting it called back by the refs, then snapping the puck glove side. Horvat had the other, winding his way in slowly before snapping the puck five-hole.
  • The Canucks can’t count on scoring five goals in regulation on Carey Price too often, especially not on just 28 shots. “You said it,” said Travis Green. “We talked about that after the game. It’s not often you score that many goals on him, he’s such a good goalie.” With that in mind, the Canucks will need to clean up their defensive game.
  • The thrilling win was fantastic, but the long-term consequences of this game could be dire. Alex Edler left the game with an unknown upper-body injury in the second period and didn’t return. Late in the game, Travis Hamonic left the game after a hit by Jonathan Drouin. If one or both are out for any length of time, the Canucks’ defensive depth will be sorely tested.
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