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IWTG: Turnovers cost Canucks after third-period comeback against the Canadiens

Pettersson's off the schneid, Höglander strikes back, and the power of self-deception.
graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

Elite athletes lie to themselves all the time.

Self-deception is practically required to get to the NHL. You have to tell yourself that you’re not tired, you’re not hurt, and you definitely can come back to win this game even when you’re down by three goals. You believe that every shot is going to go in the net, because if you didn’t, you might never shoot at all. 

Think about the confidence it takes to make a fantastic offensive play, like the kind the Sedins made look routine. Every time you try that blind backhand saucer pass, you’re lying to yourself, saying, “This is definitely going to work,” until one day it isn’t a lie. It works, the puck lands perfectly on your teammate’s stick, and he shoots it into the back of the net.

It’s an odd oxymoron: if you didn’t lie to yourself, you never would have been confident enough to make it true.

Through the first seven games of the season, the Canucks look like a bad team. They’ve given up 4.71 goals per game, the most in the NHL by a wide margin, and out-shot 255-to-204. 

The Canucks, however, can’t afford to believe that. They have to believe that they’re a good team going through a bad stretch, even if it’s a lie. They need to tell themselves that their issues are minor ones that can be fixed quickly, even if fixing those minor issues does nothing to solve larger, underlying issues, because those larger issues will take a lot more time.

On Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens, the Canucks were soundly outplayed by every statistical measure. They were out-shot 33-to-25 and out-scored 5-2. Beyond the numbers, it was just blatantly obvious the Canucks were outplayed just from watching the game. They gave the puck away too much, made bad defensive reads, and, for the most part, struggled to create any sustained offensive zone pressure.

And yet, after the game, several Canucks made a point of saying they “played good” and took a “step in the right direction.” Head coach Travis Green said, “I thought for 50 minutes, it might have been our best game to date” and all that cost them the game was “a couple mistakes in the last 10 minutes.”

There might be a little truth to those statements, but there’s a saying that the best lies have an element of truth. The fact is, the Canucks have to believe that they’re moving in the right direction, even if they’re sliding back two steps for every step forward. If they didn’t believe it was true, they’d lose any confidence to keep going.

Consider J.T. Miller. When he was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Canucks were out-shot 9-3 and out-chanced 10-4, according to Natural Stat Trick. In other words, the Canadiens created a lot of shots from dangerous areas of the ice when Miller was on with his linemates, which shifted throughout the game.

Miller, however, saw it differently. 

“We didn’t really give up a lot other than the turnover in the third,” said Miller. “Played a pretty hard-nosed game, didn’t turn the puck over much. It’s the game we want to play. You can look at the numbers all you want.”

“We barely spent any time in our zone today,” he responded when pressed on the numbers and explained away the Canadiens’ shots by saying, “A lot of times when you come back into your own end, they send it to the point and they take slap shots from the point.” 

Those things aren’t really true. They did give up more chances than the one turnover in the third and the Canadiens’ shots were not just shots from the point after long shifts in the offensive zone. If Miller spent "barely any time" in his own zone, I'm not sure how the Canadiens found the time to get those 10 scoring chances when he was on the ice.

But perhaps Miller needs to believe those things are true. He needs to tell himself that he and his linemates are a moment away from breaking out and dominating again, the way they did last year. If he doesn’t believe the lie now, maybe it will never come true later.

“It’s early in the year, we’re trying to make strides as a team,” said Miller. 

If you don’t believe that each stride is taking you somewhere better, eventually you stop taking any strides at all. The Canucks are not a good team right now, but if they deceive themselves into thinking they are, they could be a good team in the future.

There’s another saying out there, of course. The great scholar George Costanza once said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

As for me, I swear I’m not lying when I tell you I watched this game.

  • The Canucks did come out with a little more fire to start the game, throwing some early hits. Zack MacEwen was noticeable on that account, Miller got his licks in, and Virtanen played the body too. Part of the reason they threw so many hits, however, is they rarely had the puck. They only had one shot on goal in the first 13 and a half minutes of the game, which included a Canucks power play.
  • MacEwen was in the lineup in place of Adam Gaudette, who was a healthy scratch. MacEwen was physical, forced a puck-over-glass penalty with an aggressive forecheck, and set up Jake Virtanen for one of the Canucks’ best chances of the game. Not too shabby.
  • Before the Canucks could get their second shot on goal, the Canadiens opened the scoring. It looked like an innocent play, a 2-on-2, with Boeser pursuing to pressure the puck carrier, Brett Kulak. But Alex Edler allowed a wide gap and Kulak was able to centre for Nick Suzuki, who was given too much room by Tyler Myers, and he snapped the puck under Braden Holtby’s blocker.
  • To the Canucks’ credit, they did create a handful of chances later in the period and Elias Pettersson rang the crossbar on a howitzer of a one-timer on the power play. It was vintage Pettersson, which is impressive because he’s still only 22 years old and technically something can’t be “vintage” until it’s at least 50 years old.
  • Also to the Canucks’ credit, this time they didn’t let Tyler Toffoli score. Progress! It was a close call, however, as he missed a wide open net gifted to him by Corey Perry. So maybe they got a little lucky and should still keep a really close eye on Toffoli next time they play Montreal.
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  • Speaking of Perry, he signed with the Canadiens for league minimum and started the season on their taxi squad. He was one of the best players on the ice and scored the 2-0 goal, getting a bit lucky as his attempted pass was deflected by Olli Juolevi as it came off his stick, beating Holtby as he slid across to play the pass.
  • It was an unfortunate moment for Juolevi, as it was a heroic backcheck after he jumped up in the play and rang the post off a nice pass by Nils Höglander. He returned the favour to set up Höglander with Carey Price scrambling, but his shot got blocked, leading to an odd-man rush the other way. Juolevi got all the way back from below the Canadiens' goal line to get his stick on Perry’s pass, only to have it deflect into his own net. Dreadful luck.
  • On the other hand, the Canucks were outshot 11-to-1 with Juolevi on the ice at 5-on-5, so there were a lot of opportunities for a little bad luck.
  • Down 2-0, the Canucks came out in the third period on a mission: get Elias Pettersson a goal, for Pete’s sake. Okay, the mission was more to come back and win the game, but they only accomplished one of those things, so let’s imagine that’s what they intended to do for positivity’s sake. 
  • Miller got the puck behind the Canadiens net and sent it in front to Brock Boeser, who didn’t have a shooting lane so dropped it to Jordie Benn at the point. Benn sent a wristshot into traffic and Pettersson tipped it down through Price’s legs to erase the goose egg in his goal column and replace it with one angry, hissing, Canada goose.
  • Two minutes later, the line of Höglander, Bo Horvat, and Tanner Pearson kept the pressure on, leading to Nate Schmidt finding Höglander in the slot for a wicked backhand just inside the post to tie the game 2-2. Höglander didn’t start the game on that line, but when they were together, they were easily the best combination for the Canucks.
  • “I like a lot of his game,” said Green about Höglander. “He makes the odd, tiny mistake out there that you might not notice just from being a young guy in the league, a rookie in the league… I like his energy, I like his willingness to go to hard places. He’s good with the puck, he’s tenacious, there’s a lot to like about him.”
  • With the score tied 2-2, it seemed like the Canucks had the momentum. And then it all fell apart, largely because of turnovers and giveaways. Three minutes after the Canucks tied the game, Quinn Hughes tried to send a saucer pass out to the neutral zone, but the pass hit Horvat’s stick as he skated in front of him. The Canadiens’ counter-attacked 2-on-1 and Tomas Tatar set up Brendan Gallagher for the goal.
  • The Canucks challenged for offside and it momentarily looked like they had a case — the puck went in the zone before Phillip Danault could clear the blue line — but it quickly became clear that Tatar didn’t touch the puck in the offensive zone before Danault got back onside. So, not only did the Canadiens have a momentum-shifting goal, they had a power play to keep the momentum going in their direction.
  • Jonathan Drouin scored the 4-2 dagger on a brutal giveaway. Myers made an ill-conceived jump up from the blue line and Miller made an even more ill-conceived pass attempt to him. It was picked off by Josh Anderson and he sent Drouin in on a breakaway. Drouin deked and beat Holtby five-hole. Then Joel Edmundson added one more empty net goal for the 5-2 win.
  • “Your veteran guys need to be the ones that are composed and make those type of reads and I think there’s been times where we’ve pushed too hard and it’s cost us,” said Green. “I think tonight was just a case of we made a couple mistakes and when you turn the puck over, there’s usually a scoring chance, a lot of times when you turn pucks over in the middle of the rink.” 
  • “We want to get back to that swagger,” said Pettersson about how they felt in the playoff bubble. “I don’t know, it doesn’t always go the way you want it to. Everybody in the locker room wants to be better, win games, and we’re hard on each other. We just want to turn it around as quick as possible.”