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IWTG: Jacob Markstrom starves the Sharks, Canucks have a third period feeding frenzy

Sometimes the mark of a good team is their ability to sleepwalk through most of a game, then find another gear to step up and still win.
Pass it to Bulis - IWTG. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

The Canucks have given their fans every reason to believe they’re for real with their incredible run since mid-December. With their win against the Sharks on Wednesday, they’re 13-3-0 in their last 16 games, carrying them to the top of the Pacific Division and brushing up against second place in the Western Conference.

There are still some question marks remaining regarding the Canucks’ ability to stay consistent and maintain their place atop the Pacific, but they’re erasing those question marks one by one. Perhaps the biggest question mark, however, is their road record.

At home, the Canucks are legitimately one of the best teams in the NHL. The only team with more wins on home ice than the Canucks’ 17 this season is the Pittsburgh Penguins with 18, but the Penguins have played one extra home game. Given the roll the Canucks are on, I’m willing to bet they’d have matched those 18 wins with one more home game.

On the road, the Canucks are below .500 and a bottom-10 team in the NHL.

That’s a bit of an issue, because it turns out you have to play games on the road in the playoffs. It’s awfully inconvenient.

This win over the Sharks helps, taking them one step closer to an even .500, but the win came a lot harder than it should have. The Sharks, one of the worst teams in the NHL this season, largely outplayed the Canucks for the bulk of this game, particularly the first two periods. They out-shot the Canucks 40-to-25, requiring some superb goaltending from Jacob Markstrom to keep the score close heading into the third period.

And then the Canucks struck quickly and ruthlessly, scoring four goals in the third period to come away with the win. Sometimes the mark of a good team is their ability to sleepwalk through most of a game, then find another gear to step up and still win, so maybe the Canucks are actually good?

Because look at me: a few paragraphs up, I talked about how the Canucks will have to play on the road in the playoffs. I didn’t say “if.” They’ve got me believing that they’re going to do it and not just because they’ve built up enough of a buffer, or because the rest of the Pacific is a dog’s breakfast right now.

They just need to win a few more road games like they did when I watched this game.

  • The Sharks swarmed the Canucks like they smelled blood in the water (even if that’s somewhat of a myth) and took the early lead. After a minute-long shift spent primarily in the defensive zone, Elias Pettersson was likely feeling fatigued, which might explain why he got caught puck watching, leaving his check, Tomas Hertl, wide open to hammer home a Timo Meier rebound.
  • On his next shift, however, Hertl suffered a lower body injury when a sliding Chris Tanev awkwardly hit him into the boards, and he left the game. If he misses a significant length of time, the Sharks will be in even more trouble than they are now, and could easily end up in the basement with a lottery pick, which would be great if not for the fact that they traded their first-round pick this year to the Ottawa Senators.
  • The Canucks tied the game thanks to some brilliance by Quinn Hughes. He chased down a puck on the boards, then spun away from Meier, who was clearly anticipating a board battle. That gave Hughes more time and space than the TARDIS, and he spun and blasted a slap shot into the top corner past Martin Jones.
  • Elias Pettersson created some fantastic chances in the second period, including a couple clearcut breakaways, but, unlike Homestar Runner, he couldn’t seal the deal. He created a fantastic chance ex nihilo in the first minute, stealing a puck from Brenden Dillon, then toe-dragging past both Marcus Sorensen and Brent Burns before just missing the top corner while being tripped.
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  • The Sharks re-took the lead on a rough shift for Tyler Myers. First, the 5’11”, 185 lbs Kevin Labanc knocked Myers off the puck on the forecheck far too easily, then Myers got locked into a battle in front with Labanc. With his shot from the point, Brent Burns was looking for Labanc, but instead got the bank, off of Myers’ leg and in.
  • Like the Big Game without an owl, Jacob Markstrom was superb. He finished with 38 saves on 40 shots, none better than his unreal pad-stacking save in the second period to rob Kevin Labanc, a candidate for save of the year.
  • Markstrom is in such a groove at this point that he’s like a great jazz musician improvising over the complex chord progression of the shots he faces. He basically turned into the John Coltrane of goaltending for a moment there and took a giant step from the right to the left side of the net.
  • The lowest point of the game came late in the second period when Tyler Motte was carrying a puck into the Sharks zone while killing a penalty. Erik Karlsson grabbed hold of Motte’s left arm and drove Motte hard into the boards, jamming Motte’s right shoulder awkwardly into the dasher. It was an ugly play that deserved a penalty, whether for holding or boarding, but the refs let it go until it was clear Motte was badly injured and they blew the play dead.
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  • After the game, Karlsson claimed innocence: “I don't think it was anything more than a normal play that happens 10 times out there.” But the way Karlsson drove Motte into the boards gave the Canucks’ forward no chance to protect himself. In my view, that was a dirty play — maybe not as egregious-looking as an elbow to the head, but still dangerous and likely to cause an injury.
  • The Canucks turned the game around in the third, starting with the tying goal off the stick of Tyler Myers. Like Waiting for Godot, it was a deceptively simple play: Myers sent the puck to J.T. Miller on the boards, then opened up for the one-timer from the point, sailing the puck past the screen of Sorensen and the blocker of Jones. 
  • Jake Virtanen was bumped off the top line, possibly because the line gave up some early chances, but he still stepped up to score a big goal on the power play and keep his point streak going at four games. It was a fantastic goal: after Tanner Pearson came out of a board battle with the puck, he fed Virtanen, who identified penalty killer Dylan Gambrell had lost his stick. Virtanen faked the shot to send Gambrell to his knees, then patiently stepped around him and sniped a shot off the post and in.
  • A minute later, the fourth line chipped in a goal as well, with some help from Miller, who gained the zone with the puck and backhanded the puck towards the net. Jay Beagle kicked the puck into the crease, where Brandon Sutter banged it into the net, thanks to Jones scuttling sideways out of his crease like a confused crab or an Attack Attack! guitarist.  
  • The Sharks made a grave mistake late in the game as they pushed for a comeback: they took a timeout, allowing Loui Eriksson and the Insurance Line to get rested and get back on the ice. Eriksson won the puck off the boards in the defensive zone and started the breakout, feeding Bo Horvat, who sent the puck across to Tanner Pearson, who scored his league-leading fifth empty net goal.
  • The Insurance Line now has combined for eight empty net goals in the last 15 games. It is such a bizarre little run for that line, but it’s also a testimony to their reliability in closing out games. It’s a lot better than giving up a tying goal and losing a point in overtime.