That was embarrassing.
I’m not talking about the performance of the Vancouver Canucks, which wasn’t all that bad, even if they were held off the scoreboard by the Winnipeg Jets. I’m talking about the officiating, which let a hard-fought game boil over into extraneous nonsense by swallowing their whistles in the third period.
Or rather, they swallowed their whistles until whether or not they called a penalty had no impact on the game, then somehow managed to screw it up anyway.
There had been some missed calls earlier in the game, but that happens. With a little bit over five minutes left, however, an egregious non-call tainted what remained of the game.
It started with a hit by Nils Höglander on Derek Forbort. Here’s some important context: Höglander is 5’9” and Forbort is 6’4”. Höglander kept his feet on the ice and finished his check through Forbort’s chest, but the big defenceman took issue with the smaller rookie catching Forbort in the head with his shoulder.
The officials didn’t call a penalty on Höglander because, quite frankly, it wasn’t one. The NHL has made it abundantly clear that incidental head contact on a hit to the chest isn’t a penalty. By the NHL’s standards, it was just a hard, clean check.
Forbort didn’t see it that way and went after Höglander during a puck battle along the boards, delivering three blatant crosschecks, including one after the puck was gone that sent Höglander to the ice. Somehow, neither referee saw any of those crosschecks as worthy of a two-minute minor.
It seems obvious that the referees had one eye on the scoreboard. It was 1-0 for the Jets at the time and both teams had already had two power plays. In this situation, referees will often swallow their whistles for fear of “influencing” the outcome of the game.
As my father would euphemistically say in place of a cuss when he taught high school math, that’s pigdirt.
By not making the call on Forbort, the officials were influencing the game. What should have been a power play for the Canucks at a crucial time instead remained at 5-on-5.
Crosschecks aren’t harmless, either. As Daniel Sedin once told me when I asked him about getting used to constant crosschecks in his career, “Yeah, I mean, I had back surgery. So that’s what happens.”
It got worse. The referees finally took their whistles out of their pockets in the final minute of the game, after the Jets had already scored an empty net goal to make the score 2-0. Evidently satisfied that they weren’t going to “influence” the game, it was okay for them to make a call.
The call, incidentally, was on Forbort. Apparently emboldened by the non-call earlier, satisfied that he wasn’t going to cost his team the game, and believing that his three crosschecks weren’t sufficient revenge for a legal hit, Forbort once again went after Höglander, this time after the whistle.
Again, this is a 6’4”, 28-year-old veteran going after a 5’9”, 21-year-old rookie in a game that has already been decided. It’s gutless and it’s bush league, but so was the decision by the officials afterwards.
Despite Forbort getting the initial penalty and clearly instigating a massive scrum after the whistle, he didn’t get any additional penalties apart from a 10-minute misconduct — fairly meaningless with no time left in the game. Instead, the officials somehow evened up the penalties and the two teams finished the game 4-on-4.
Brock Boeser said it best from the bench: “What the f*** do you mean?”
It was dreadful officiating.
It’s an age-old story for Canucks fans, of course, who saw opposing players take liberties on Markus Naslund, the Sedins, and Elias Pettersson before Höglander. They probably took liberties on Thomas Gradin as well.
Or maybe this was all a massive misunderstanding. Forbort wasn’t trying to hurt Höglander in return as revenge for injuring his pride — he was just trying to have a little fun with a tickle fight.
Before all of this nonsense, I watched this game.
- Höglander obviously has a lot of skill, but he also has a knack for getting under the skin of opposing players. As much as his hit on Forbort wasn’t dirty, he’s been known for throwing some elbows on reverse hits in the SHL. It’s not an excuse, but it’s likely because he’s a smaller player trying to protect himself. That wasn’t the case against Forbort — he was just finishing his check.
- “He's a hard-nosed little player,” said head coach Travis Green. “He's not a dirty player by any means. He's very clean, he plays hard…As far as getting under other people's skin, I think he does it just with hard work and tenacity.”
- The dogpile at the end of the game might end up galvanizing the team, as every player on the ice made a beeline for Forbort as soon as he grabbed Höglander. Tanner Pearson suggested, “That’s what makes a good team and a tight-bonded team.”
- “It was a 10-man pile of bodies,” said Elias Pettersson, “I really like the response from everyone to protect Höglander. We're a team. We're in this together.”
- Let’s move on to the game itself, even if it feels ancillary at this point. The Canucks will be kicking themselves for missed chances and wasting a fantastic performance from Thatcher Demko. They should probably wait until they’ve taken their skates off before they start kicking themselves, however.
- It took a bad bounce and a breakaway for the Jets to get one past Demko. J.T. Miller passed the puck to Alex Edler at the point and the puck skipped up just as it hit Edler’s stick and launched into the neutral zone as if it was Evel Knievel jumping over 14 buses. Mark Scheifele broke away and made a beautiful move to beat Demko on the backhand.
- “He gave up a breakaway goal and shut the door the rest of the way, it’s pretty obvious he had a pretty good game,” Green, the master of the mildly passive-aggressive understatement, said when asked how Demko played.
- Demko was more than pretty good. He was a brick wall, particularly in the first period when he stopped 14 of 15 shots. His best save came on a late Jets power play in the first, as he recovered from a blocked pass to stretch across and get his glove on a Kyle Connor shot that deflected off Blake Wheeler’s knee.
- The Canucks just couldn’t buy a goal. In the dying seconds of the first period, Olli Juolevi jumped up and went to the net and got two golden scoring chances, but was turned aside both times. In the second, Elias Pettersson was robbed on two scoring chances in the first five minutes. Then Adam Gaudette had two chances midway through the second and missed just wide on the first and was stopped cold by Laurent Brossoit on the second. They were getting chances two-by-two, but were turned aside like the dinosaurs at Noah’s Ark.
- The bigger problem for the Canucks, however, is the scoring chances that they didn’t get because they passed the puck instead of shooting. Boeser had one of the most egregious.He took a drop pass from Juolevi, then made a great move around Matthieu Perreault, but instead of taking the shot, he tried to make a backdoor pass to Loui Eriksson, who was getting his stick lifted by Adam Lowry. As M says, “Take the shot.”
- The same problem plagued the Canucks in the third period. The top line in particular had tons of time in the offensive zone, but only Miller actually managed to get a shot on goal. The Jets mostly kept them to the outside, but they had chances to shoot, but, like a school suspected of grade-fixing, they always had too many passes.
- “I agree,” said Pettersson. “I think we have shot opportunities and especially me, I'm trying to find a perfect pass when I maybe can shoot the easy shot to create a scramble and maybe hopefully score a goal. Maybe now, when the puck isn't going in, just gotta simplify.”
- “It felt like we had a good period but probably when we go back and watch the tape we're gonna think that we had the puck a lot but didn't find a way to get inside,” said Green. “We didn't put enough pressure to the net with shots and traffic and we missed the net a few times from the point when we had traffic.”
- Of course, we all should have seen this coming. The Canucks tempted fate on the first night they wore their "reverse retro" gradient jerseys by holding a contest: for every goal the Canucks scored, they would give away a jersey. That pretty much guaranteed they wouldn't score a goal. Way to go, guys.