The Canucks went into Saturday night’s game against the Winnipeg Jets on a three-game win streak, looking like they had completely turned the corner from their awful start to the season.
Still, it was hard to shake the thought throughout their three-game sweep of the Ottawa Senators that, “It’s only the Senators.”
The Senators were expected to be the worst team in the all-Canadian North Division — they entered the season with the lowest payroll in the league and only made a few changes from the team that finished 30th in the NHL last season. Beating the Senators is certainly preferable to losing to them, but it’s hard to take those wins as indicative of how the Canucks might perform against the other, better teams in the North.
In particular, the number of shots the Canucks gave up to the Senators was alarming: 116 in three games, an average of 38.7 shots per game. Give up that many shots against a team with more offensive talent — say, the Winnipeg Jets — and the Canucks would be in serious trouble.
So they didn’t.
The Canucks put together their best defensive effort on the season, limiting the Jets to just 24 shots, their lowest total of the season. Most impressively, it didn’t come at the expense of their offence, as they still racked up 39 shots of their own.
Head coach Travis Green agreed that it was their best 60-minute performance of the season.
“I think it looked more like our team from last year, getting closer to the game that we want to see,” said Green. “Our team has to work extremely hard to win. That's the way we feel. We want to take away time and space and if we don't work hard and we don't skate, it doesn't happen.”
It made for a much easier night for goaltender Thatcher Demko. It was his third straight start allowing just one goal against, but he only had to make about half as many saves to do it as he did in his last start.
“You saw it in the last two periods, there were not a lot of pucks coming towards me,” said Demko. “Even zone time, maybe they get a couple cycles, but guys are shutting it down, playing with each other, making sure we're getting the puck back out of the zone and spending more time in their end.”
The Canucks will have some tougher tests ahead of them, including back-to-back games against the Montreal Canadiens to kick off February, but this game against the Jets provides more optimism than the Senators sweep heading into those matchups.
I’m hoping to see the same defensive effort in the future that I saw when I watched this game.
- The Canucks opened the scoring on the first shift of the game. Alex Edler jumped up in the rush and raced onto a puck on the left wing. He shoulder-checked to see who was with him; Blake Wheeler didn’t. As a result, Wheeler’s check was wide open, and worse for the Jets’ captain, his man was Brock Boeser. No shoulder check meant a flunked driver’s test for Wheeler and the 1-0 goal for Boeser.
- Connor Hellebuyck pushed out hard to the top of his crease when Boeser got the pass, because you had to respect Boeser’s wicked wrist shot. That gave Boeser all kinds of room to cut to the backhand instead and tuck it into the open net. Hellebuyck is arguably the best goaltender in the NHL and Boeser made scoring on him look super easy, barely an inconvenience.
- Was Edler’s pass to Boeser just a fortunate deflection off a defender’s stick? “Oh no,” said Boeser. “Eagle shocked the whole rink, I think. He made a tremendous pass there. I think everyone thought that he was gonna bump it to Millsy behind the net and he did the old Eagle there and looked off Millsy and passed it right to me in the front, so it was a phenomenal pass by him.”
- Wheeler disagrees. “Edler was trying to throw that back-door,” said Wheeler. “[Mark Scheifel] was ahead of me, and being the centreman, he took that guy to the back-post. Unfortunately, the puck hit off [Josh Morrissey’s] heel of his stick and went right to Boeser in the slot.”
- The Canucks did a better job of taking care of the puck in their own zone, but still had a couple of turnovers, one of which indirectly resulted in the tying goal. Jordie Benn tried to flip the puck up the middle and it was picked off by Nikolaj Ehlers, who forced Demko to make a save. The puck went out of play off Demko’s blocker, but the Jets scored immediately after the subsequent offensive zone faceoff.
- Nils Höglander made it 2-1 later in the first, but his shift leading up to the goal was more impressive than the goal itself. He made a slick spin-o-rama on the zone entry to get by Morrissey, then made a power move to the front of the net, protecting the puck with his left leg to get a scoring chance. A moment later, he picked off a pass on the Jets’ breakout, then won a puck battle in the corner. The 5’9” Höglander looks more like a power forward than all the guys who are supposed to be power forwards.
- Off of Höglander’s puck battle in the corner, Tanner Pearson got the puck to Bo Horvat behind the net. His attempted return pass deflected up and went over the net like Ryan Kesler, ramping up over Hellebuyck’s head. Höglander, like a proper power forward, had gone right to the front of the net and was ready to bat the puck out of the air and in.
- Höglander cemented his power forward bonafides later in the second period, responding to repeated crosschecks to the back from Scheifele with a swing of his elbow, which is something we’ve seen from him in the SHL. Surprisingly, the referees didn’t call the elbow, but actually called a crosschecking penalty on Scheifele, evened up with a penalty on Tanner Pearson, who was delivering a few crosschecks of his own.
- After Demko shut the door on a late first-period push by the Jets, Zack MacEwen gave the Canucks a 3-1 lead in the second. He jumped on the ice for Boeser on a line change, carried the puck in, dropped the puck to J.T. Miller, then got to the front of the net. Miller made a move on Ehlers, then set up a Benn one-timer that MacEwen tipped just under the bar where the bartender keeps his shotgun.
- The Canucks’ power play went 0-for-3, but got some good looks, including from the second power play unit. Pettersson got a one-timer opportunity from his favourite spot at the top of the right faceoff circle, but, like so many times this season, his stick shattered: the blade of his stick and the puck both took off to the end boards, with his blade winning the race.
- Nate Schmidt nearly had an own goal in the second. Fortunately, Demko snagged the puck with his glove when it deflected off Schmidt’s stick in front. Good thing, because it would have undone a solid game for Schmidt, who had a team-high seven shots on goal, blocked three shots, and played a solid shutdown game matched up against the Jets’ top line: the Jets didn’t have a single shot on goal when Schmidt was on the ice against Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler at 5-on-5.
- Late in the third period, Schmidt gave a master class on how to slide on the ice to break up a 2-on-1 — Tyler Myers, take notes! He perfectly read Ehlers’ intentions and timed his slide to the ice perfectly to get his outstretched stick on the attempted pass.
- Schmidt even picked up a point, albeit on an empty net goal. He won the puck behind the net off Scheifele, then rung it around the boards, where it hit a broken stick, leaving it perfectly for Boeser to skate onto. He hit the empty net from distance for his league-leading 8th goal of the season.
- Through 11 games, Boeser has already scored half as many goals as he scored all of last season. Sure, the last goal was into an empty net, but that’s also a great sign, that Green wants him on the ice defending a lead. A rejuvenated, sniping Boeser is tremendously exciting for Canucks fans.
- “Even last year, I think I was still learning stuff about my body from past injuries and different exercises I need to do to prep,” said Boeser. “I'm feeling really good right now. I feel like I know what I need to do before each and every practice and game to stay on top of my body and I feel like it's showing on the ice.”