The series between the Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues was as tight as they come, with three one-goal games, including two that went to overtime. Even the Canucks’ Game 5 victory was a narrow one, with the Blues nearly tying the game up in the dying seconds, with video review showing that time had expired just in the nick of time.
Yes, it was a tight, hard-fought series. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Throughout the series, the Blues looked like the better team. They out-shot the Canucks by a wide margin in every game, with the shots 173-to-141 through the first five games. Even in the games the Canucks won, it took heroics by Jacob Markstrom, the power play, or even Tyler Motte to make up for the dominance the Blues showed at 5-on-5.
Yes, the Blues were the better team. Until, suddenly, they weren’t.
Game 6 wasn’t even close. The Canucks took the lead just a few minutes in, then made that lead insurmountable before the game was even 30 minutes old. For the first time all series, the game wasn’t close and the Canucks clearly looked like the better team.
There was no overtime needed, no come-from-behind heroics, no last minute scramble to defend the net — there was just pure, unadulterated domination. It might have been the best complete game the Canucks have played in years.
“It was impressive by our group,” said head coach Travis Green. “We wanted to come out and play extremely fast. We wanted to spend time in their zone. Again, the caliber of team that we played is exceptional and that was a 60-minute game.”
The Canucks have made a habit this season of letting their play lapse for five or ten-minute stretches, losing games they should have won in that time. In this game, there was no lapse, no moment where the Canucks got completely lost in the defensive zone. The closest they came was late in the second period, when Brandon Sutter, Antoine Roussel, Adam Gaudette, Jordie Benn, and Oscar Fantenberg got stuck on the ice for a shift that lasted 2:38, but even then, the Canucks kept their cool and played stalwart defence, not allowing a single shot on goal despite all the zone time for the Blues.
Instead of a five-minute lapse, the Canucks had a six-minute surge. They were all over the Blues early in the second period, forcing turnovers, creating chances, and scoring goals — three of them, putting the game out of reach and sending the Blues reeling.
“We were pushing hard, skating hard, backchecking hard, and everything kind of fell into the places,” said the delightfully-French Antoine Roussel, who scored the 2-0 goal. “We kind of killed their spirit there with a couple good goals back-to-back.”
From there, it was all about defence for the Canucks, even as they added two more goals in the third period. Defensively, they didn’t give up much, even as the defending Stanley Cup Champions threw everything they had towards the net. They didn’t get a goal until the third period and wouldn’t score again until there were less than two minutes left in the game. It was far too little and far too late.
“It’s commitment,” said Tyler Motte to explain their defensive game. “Everyone in the room, throughout the lineup, has beared down in the D zone. It’s something we talked a lot about in camp, we worked on a lot in camp. We came into the Minnesota series, I don’t think we gave up a lot 5-on-5 in that series.
“Again it’s just commitment, it’s the will to pay the price, we had a lot of guys blocking shots, some guys that you don’t even expect to block shots — Boes had a few tonight, Huggy had a few in Game 5 — guys are laying it on the line.”
A lot of it has to do with Jacob Markstrom, who has been stellar in his first ever NHL postseason. He made another 34 saves, giving him a playoff-leading 325 saves through the first round.
“I don’t know if we’re in this spot without Marky,” said Troy Stecher. “It’s absolutely mindboggling to me that he wasn’t a Vezina candidate. We’re very thankful to have him on our team.”
Markstrom seemed taken aback and humbled by the Vezina mention, turning to Stecher and sincerely saying, “Thank you, Troy.” Of course, the ever team-focused Markstrom wasn’t going to take all the praise himself.
“I’m seeing a lot of sacrifices,” said Jacob Markstrom, “and a lot of unselfish players that are willing to take the extra stride to be in the way, to block shots and clear rebounds and make my job a lot easier.
“I just see a tight group in front of me that loves playing and having fun doing it.”
And that has led to a lot of Canucks fans that love watching them having fun, just like I did when I watched this game.
- We’re having a very different conversation about this game if not for a fantastic save Markstrom made to kick off the game. David Perron got the first shot of the game just 14 seconds in from just inside the hashmarks. Markstrom got just enough of the cheater of his glove on the puck to steer it over the bar, and it
seems appropriate that it was a cheater that foiled Perron, who had been poking and jabbing at Markstrom (and the rest of the Canucks) all series.
- Instead, the unlikeliest of heroes opened the scoring for the Canucks. The fourth line put on the pressure on the forecheck. Motte stick-checked Jacob De La Rose, who tried to kick the puck out of the zone, but instead stepped and slipped on it like a banana peel. Jay Beagle picked up the loose puck, cut to the slot and, with Jake Virtanen sliding in front of him as a screen, fired it past Jordan Binnington.
- It was a surprise to see Binnington get the start after the Canucks carved him up in the first two games of the series. Jake Allen had stepped in and backstopped the Blues to a pair of wins to get the series tied 2-2 before losing Game 5, but Craig Berube sat Allen and his .939 save percentage in favour of Binnington and his .862 save percentage. It's hard to measure exactly how big a mistake that was, but I would estimate about 0.077.
- Before getting into the rest of the game, I want to highlight a couple small plays by Elias Pettersson that illustrate just how good he is and how he’s growing as a player as we watch. One of those plays is a simple faceoff win, but it’s noteworthy for a couple reasons. One is that Pettersson barely took faceoffs this season, with J.T. Miller taking the bulk of the draws on the top line, but Pettersson went 7-for-11 in the faceoff circle on Friday night.
- The other reason I’m drawing attention to it is that’s Miller’s faceoff move. That forehand faceoff move is relatively unique to Miller and Pettersson has picked it up, suddenly deploying it in the playoffs when he’s barely taken any faceoffs all season.
- Miller’s move is so unique that when I once asked Bo Horvat if he might try to learn it, he just laughed. “It’s totally different,” said Horvat. “He’s got a big toe curve and a big hook on his stick, so it’s easier for him...I don’t have that kind of scooping curve, so I’m just gonna stick to the backhand.”
- The other small moment from Pettersson is this diving play in the neutral zone to break up the Blues’ breakout. It may not look like much, but that awareness to pick off that puck turns the Blues back into their own zone instead of gaining the Canucks’ zone and creating chances for themselves. A moment later, the Blues would try to break out again, but this time Roussel disrupted things, leading to the 2-0 goal. It doesn’t happen without that play by Pettersson.
- Roussel was relentless in his puck pursuit, knocking the puck off Vince Dunn’s stick. Brandon Sutter followed up and tried to chip a pass through to Adam Gaudette while being taken down. The ref signalled a delayed penalty, but the Canucks didn’t need it: the puck bounced back to Roussel and he snapped it like a Slim Jim, putting it just under Binnington’s glove.
- The Canucks have scored several highlight reel goals, but they don’t get any better than the show they put on for the 3-0 goal. It’s probably for the best that such a brilliant goal wasn’t scored in front of thousands of screaming fans, because they would’ve blown the roof off Rogers Arena, and I’m not sure the Aquilinis can afford the repairs.
- The play started with Pettersson, who gained the zone, then pulled up to create space before feeding Quinn Hughes, who pulled a couple defenders to him before sliding the puck back to Pettersson. Two more defenders moved to Pettersson, but he sent a spinning backhand to Sutter at the backdoor. Who knows why Sutter was on the ice with Pettersson, but it worked, as Sutter set up Stecher for a one-timer just inside the right faceoff circle, sending it post and in past Binnington.
The #Canucks are just toying with the Blues. What an incredible passing play by Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and *checks notes* Brandon Sutter. Superb finish by Troy Stecher. pic.twitter.com/nnH5Qg3QlD— Daniel Wagner (@passittobulis) August 22, 2020
- The goal was Sedin-esque, as Pettersson and Hughes had the Blues running all over the ice trying to figure out where the puck was going next, with no one seeing Stecher coming at all. It seemed like when the Sedins retired, we’d never get to see passing plays like that again, but the kids are alright.
- To top it off, the Canucks made it 4-0 just over a minute later with their bread and butter: the power play. The first power play unit has shown multiple different looks this series, and they busted out a new one that was really a classic hit: Brock Boeser at the top of the left faceoff circle. Early in the power play, he faked a shot before sending a brilliant pass across to Pettersson that he fanned on with an open net. Later on, however, Pettersson sent the puck up to Hughes, who put it right in Boeser’s wheelhouse, and he drilled a one-timer past Binnington’s blocker for his first goal of the series.
- Boeser’s shot was a bullet, a bomb, and a rocket, but whatever weapon you want to describe it as, there’s one that’s absolutely necessary: a dagger. The goal made it 4-0 and seemed to completely demoralize the Blues. There was no coming back from that.
- The 4-0 goal also chased Binnington from the net, bringing Jake Allen back into the series. Binnington made 14 saves on 18 shots, a save percentage of .777, so he actually dragged his save percentage in the playoffs down to .851 with his performance.
- The Blues finally got a goal 6:32 into the third period, taking advantage of a delayed penalty to outnumber the Canucks in the offensive zone. Jaden Schwartz’s slap shot snuck through Markstrom as he ran into Ryan O’Reilly parked in front of the net, but the contact was initiated by Markstrom outside the crease, so the goal stood.
- The Canucks didn’t give an inch after the goal, however, pushing back offensively to take the pressure off. I particularly appreciated this perfectly-weighted pass from Horvat to Tanner Pearson, akin to playing a through ball in soccer. Horvat put the puck behind the defence where only Pearson could get to it, leading to a fantastic scoring chance.
- The pretty pass that led to another Canucks goal came off someone else’s stick, however: Beagle’s. Sutter broke up a play in the neutral zone and Beagle took the puck and broke in 2-on-1 with Tyler Motte. Beagle angled into the middle, forcing Allen to play the potential shot, then sent a fluttering saucer pass over Justin Faulk’s stick to set up Motte’s third goal of the series and restore the four-goal lead.
- The Blues played most of the third period, it seemed, with their net empty, pulling Allen for the extra attacker. It paid off with one goal from Schwartz, who took advantage of all the traffic and a ricocheting puck to bang home his second goal with 1:22 left in the game. But then Motte picked off a pass in the neutral zone and scored into the empty net, giving him four goals in his last two games.
- And, just like that, it was over. The Canucks beat the Blues in six games, their first true playoff win since 2011. In their post-game media availability, the Canucks struck a sober tone, emphasizing that they’re not content with winning just one round, but in the locker room they were jubilant.
- Travis Green interrupted the music in the locker room — “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes — with a quick post-game talk: “Two seconds: I’m proud as f*** of you guys, enjoy it for a bit, f***ing rights, turn the music on.”
- “I know Scott Road’s going to be bumping tonight,” said Stecher, showing his hometown bonafides yet again. And yes, it was.