If the Nils Höglander hype train was just leaving the station in training camp, on Wednesday night it took off like a bullet train.
Höglander was one of the best players on the ice for the Canucks, setting up multiple scoring chances for his linemates before capitalizing on a chance of his own, scoring his first career NHL goal in his first career NHL game.
The most impressive part? He did it all while hard-matched against the Connor McDavid line for the Edmonton Oilers.
No Canuck played more against McDavid at 5-on-5 than Höglander. He played 9:13 of his 14:46 ice time at 5-on-5 matched up against McDavid. In that time, the Canucks out-shot the Oilers 5-4 and out-scored them 1-0.
It brings to mind the Canucks’ first game last season, which was also against the Oilers. Like Höglander, Quinn Hughes was playing the first game of his rookie season. Like Höglander, Hughes found himself up against McDavid on his very first shift. And like Höglander, no Canuck spent more time up against McDavid at 5-on-5 than Hughes.
It’s emblematic of how much faith Canucks head coach Travis Green is willing to put in young players. Other coaches might have tried to ease Höglander into his first NHL season with some time on the third or fourth line and on the second power play unit. Green put him out against McDavid and on the first power play unit in place of J.T. Miller.
Höglander rewarded Green’s faith with a game so good that Green had no choice but to actually praise him in the post-game presser.
“He was really good tonight,” said Green, busting out the type of hyperbolic praise he normally reserves for moon landings and the transatlantic telegraph. “He was strong both ends of the rink, strong on the puck, made some nice plays — very happy with his game.”
For those who aren’t familiar with Green’s post-game quotes, he rarely escalates his praise for a player above “good.” Most players get a “fine” or “okay.” Green using the phrase “really good” and saying he was “very happy” is almost unheard of. And when he was asked about the “found money” of a rookie playing that well, Green got positively giddy.
“There’s even some times when you’re giggling a little bit inside,” he said. “You see a guy in practice, you see a guy in scrimmage, you wonder how he’ll react in regular season games and I thought he raised his game.”
Like Green, I also giggled inside while watching Höglander when I watched this game.
- Welcome to another season of PITB’s regular post-game feature: I Watched This Game. It’s a series of observations, quotes, quips, and esoteric pop-culture references from a guy who, as you might have guessed, watched this game. Please enjoy.
- Höglander made his presence felt right from puck drop. McDavid won the faceoff, but Höglander immediately pursued Ethan Bear, lifted his stick, and forced a turnover. Moments later, Höglander carried the puck down the left wing and set up a scoring chance on the doorstep for Bo Horvat. Any concern of how he’d handle NHL-level intensity was instantly wiped away, hopefully with a star wipe, because why eat hamburger when you can have steak?
- Olli Juolevi was also making his regular-season debut and was mostly good with a couple of glaring exceptions. His intelligence and positioning stood out the most in the neutral zone, where he cut short some Oilers’ possessions before they even started. For example, this quick close-out on Alex Chiasson erased a potential 3-on-2 like a coach with a whiteboard changing his mind on what drill to run.
- For the most part, that was Juolevi’s game all night: quietly keeping the puck out of the defensive zone. Shot attempts were 12-2 for the Canucks with Juolevi on the ice at 5-on-5. It’s just that one of those two shot attempts was a goal and Juolevi looked primarily to blame. We’ll get to that.
- Bo Horvat opened the scoring on a terrible defensive play by Adam Larsson, who I am contractually obligated to inform you was traded 1-for-1 for Taylor Hall. Tanner Pearson carried in on the right wing and Larsson came over looking for a big hit despite Zack Kassian already tracking him down. That left Horvat more wide open spaces around him than a Dixie Chick. Pearson fed him and Horvat had all day to flick the puck under Mikko Koskinen’s blocker.
- Key to the goal was another great little play from Höglander, who went to the perfect spot on the boards in the defensive zone for the breakout, protecting the puck from the pinching Caleb Jones. He won’t get an assist on the goal, but it doesn’t happen without that little play, and that’s what Green appreciates about him.
- “He made a great play along the wall,” said Pearson. “It all started with the D-zone play.”
- The Oilers responded early in the second period on one of the few moments where Juolevi looked like a rookie. Picking up the puck in the defensive zone, Juolevi took a moment to handle the puck instead of making a quick pass up the boards to Antoine Roussel or across the ice to Zack MacEwen. In that moment of hesitation. Kailer Yamamoto lifted his stick and Leon Draisaitl stole the puck. Yamamoto got open for the one-timer and sent it home like he was Ferris Bueller.
- “I thought it was close to being a penalty actually on him,” said Green about the goal, implying that Yamamoto’s stick caught Juolevi in the hands. “I think it’s important when a young guy makes, if you want to call it a mistake, to get him back out there and keep his confidence. I thought he was solid, quietly solid.”
- With the score tied 1-1, new Canucks goaltender Braden Holtby was called upon to make a couple of big saves. He shut the five-hole on Dominic Kahun, then absolutely robbed McDavid by stretching across to get his left toe on the puck. It was the biggest stretch since someone claimed that Elias Pettersson is better than McDavid.
- That’s when Höglander struck for his first career goal. Horvat made a great play to keep the puck in the offensive zone while covering for Nate Schmidt at the blue line, then fed Pearson going to the net. He fought off a check and got a shot on goal, then Höglander was first to the rebound, swiping right on the puck and finding a match.
- Noteworthy on both goals from that line: Pearson protecting the puck. He fought off a check each time to earn both of his two assists on the night.
- The Oilers kept coming, however, scoring the tying goal just ten seconds into the third period on the power play, with Nurse going upstairs like he was about to play Go with a famous novelist.
- The Canucks came with a quick response of their own, with Adam Gaudette blasting a rolling puck past Kokkinen. He joked that he only scored because he wasn’t satisfied with Höglander’s goal celebration. “I told him I’d have to teach him one, so I put it in the net and gave him a little show,” he said with a laugh.
- Less than two minutes later, Brock Boeser gave the Canucks their first two-goal lead. It came off a brilliant play by Quinn Hughes, who managed to keep the puck in at the blue line despite getting knocked onto his tuchus by Yamamoto. From his ass, Hughes put some gas on a pass to Boeser, who was wide open with the Oilers flying the zone in anticipation of the puck getting past Hughes.
- “I don’t even know how Hughes passed it at first, I don’t even know if he knew I was there, but that was a tremendous play by him,” said Boeser, who had all day to pick his spot past Koskinen’s glove to make it 4-2.
- Larsson managed to get the Oilers back within one, but Boeser scored again to reestablish the two-goal lead. Pettersson made a ridiculous bank pass to Boeser to send him in on the right wing and Boeser went top shelf where Nana hides the cookies. It was a perfect shot and Boeser’s celebratory “Woo!” reverberated through the rink and rivaled that of Ric Flair.
- After the game, Boeser said that his shot hasn’t been at its best over the past couple of seasons, something he hasn’t admitted publicly before.
- “I would say not necessarily has it been there, especially after my back injury, because that gave me a lot of problems after. It was a pretty bad injury,” said Boeser. “Knowing my body now and knowing what I need to feel good...I feel like my shot’s back where it was my first year.”
- Now that’s a statement: “My shot’s back where it was my first year.” In his rookie year, Boeser’s shooting percentage was 16.2%, but it fell off to 12.44% in his second year and 9.5% last season. If he’s able to bring back his lethal wrist shot from his 29-goal rookie season, the NHL better beware.