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IWTG: Tyler Motte turns playoff hero in come-from-behind Canucks win

Jacob Markstrom made 36 saves to keep the Canucks in the game, then Tyler Motte completed the comeback.
graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

The St. Louis Blues had all the momentum. Not only had they won two straight games to tie the series 2-2, they had utterly dominated Game 4 while completely neutralizing the Canucks’ vaunted power play. 

It felt like the series was slipping away from the Canucks, even moreso on Wednesday night when the Blues took a 3-1 lead in the early minutes of a second period where they were so obviously the better team. Shots were 9-2 in the second period when the Blues scored their third goal and they seemingly never left the Canucks’ end. 

“Honestly, I think it was close to getting out of hand,” said J.T. Miller. 

What the Canucks needed in this game were some unlikely heroes. All of the team’s scoring in the series had come from their top-six forwards heading into this game and they desperately needed some of their depth to help turn the tide in Game 5.

“To win you need to have different guys step up, it’s hard to have the same guys score every night,” said head coach Travis Green.

Enter Tyler Motte.

Motte certainly hasn’t been unheralded in this series — his shot-blocking efforts, forechecking efforts, and other very effortful efforts had all been noticed and praised in previous games. Up until Wednesday night, those efforts didn’t always lead to the best results. 

That doesn’t just mean scoring goals, which isn’t the prerogative of a fourth-liner like Motte, but that the Canucks had been badly out-chanced all series with Motte on the ice. While he did some fantastic work on the penalty kill, he was getting badly outplayed at 5-on-5.

In Game 5, everything shifted for Motte. Despite deployment against tough competition like Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, David Perron, and Ryan O’Reilly, Motte and his linemates controlled puck possession like they had never done before. Scoring chances were 8-0 for the Canucks with Motte on the ice at 5-on-5 — simply a dominant two-way performance from the player that shares Pete Rose’s “Charlie Hustle” nickname for his tireless work ethic.

The goals don’t hurt either.

Motte both opened and closed the scoring in this game, bookending his best performance of the postseason, if not his entire career.

“He does a lot of little things for our team, things that go unnoticed, but the guys in the room notice. This time of the year, you need guys to step up,” said Green of Motte. “I was happy for him, he played a hell of a game.”

Thanks to Motte, I got to see a hell of a game when I watched this game.

  • Green is known for hitting the pulse button on the Line Blender 3000™, but he normally waits until the game has actually started. Wednesday night, he switched up the lines before the opening puck drop. In warmup before the game, the lines were exactly the same as they started in Game 4, but the opening faceoff saw Bo Horvat line up with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser on his wings, Zack MacEwen was scratched, and Adam Gaudette drew in as a winger. 
  • While Green has been secretive about his lines this postseason — the Canucks are one of the few teams that don’t tweet out line combinations from their closed practices — this was another level. When The Athletic’s Thomas Drance asked him about the switch, Green chuckled and said, “Yeah, we just didn’t show our lines today.”
  • If the switch-up was meant to challenge Blues’ head coach Craig Berube with how to deploy Ryan O’Reilly — send him against Horvat, who had the two best Canucks’ wingers or against Elias Pettersson, the Canucks’ best forward — it arguably worked. Pettersson played less than a minute against O’Reilly at 5-on-5 and had his most dominant even-strength performance of the series. Of course, the lines were also discarded almost immediately, with Pettersson playing at least a minute with six different linemates.
  • The biggest difference for the Canucks handling O’Reilly was the defensive pairing that played the most minutes against him and his linemates: Chris Tanev and Quinn Hughes. It seemed like the Canucks were able to get cleaner breakouts to stymie O’Reilly’s forechecking efforts, whicih limited the time he spent in the offensive zone. Of course, O’Reilly still scored a goal, because he’s still an unstoppable force, but it came against Alex Edler and Jordie Benn, who are a much more movable object.
  • Green, for his part, was not forthcoming about what he think his team did well against O’Reilly: “I’m probably not goinig to give you my real ideas or thoughts,” he said with a smile before providing a much more pat answer. It’s always good to remember that Green wasn’t just a professional hockey player, but also a professional poker player: he knows how to keep his cards close to his chest. 
  • The Canucks were flying in the first period, but had their momentum halted by a Chris Tanev tripping penalty. Fortunately, they got a break — literally, Alex Pietrangelo’s stick broke — and Motte was able to break out shorthanded. Without a stick, Pietrangelo was helpless to stop Motte’s slick outside-inside deke, then Motte ripped a wrister past Jake Allen’s blocker. It seemed appropriate that Motte, who's so good on the penalty kill, got his first playoff goal on the penalty kill: it was a shorthanded beauty by a shorthanded beauty.
  • I’m guessing Pietrangelo wasn’t expecting a move like that out of a fourth-line grinder, but it’s good to remember that Motte was a Hobey Baker finalist in his junior year at Michigan, putting up 32 goals in 38 games. Given an opportunity like a defenceman without a stick, Motte can pull off a little magic.
  • The celebration was short-lived, however, as the Blues pushed back a few minutes later. Brayden Schenn sniped a goal past Jacob Markstrom to tie the game after no one picked him up coming off the bench. Then, in the final minute of the period, O’Reilly got a fortunate bounce on a wraparound, deflecting off Benn’s stick and over Markstrom’s skate for the 2-1 lead going into the first intermission.
  • “I thought the first 15 minutes of the first period, we were really good,” said Green, emphasizing the word ‘really’ more than normal. “I thought we turned the puck over a few times, we didn’t move our feet the last five minutes and that started the tilt.”
  • The tilt continued through the first half of the second period and Markstrom had to be spectacular to keep the Canucks in the game, particularly when a routine dump-in hit linesman Libor Suchanek in the arm, giving Jacob De La Rose a wide open net. Markstrom lunged across like an Olympic fencer, somehow getting his blocker on the shot to keep the score 2-1.
  • Markstrom couldn’t do anything about the 3-1 goal a couple minutes later. Zach Sanford took advantage of Motte losing his stick on the penalty kill — somewhat ironic given how he scored his shorthanded goal — and ripped the puck off the post and in. 
  • “We needed to tighten up the chinstrap a little, play our game,” said J.T. Miller.
  • Miller’s chinstrap must have been as tight as it could go, as he scored a greasy, grimy, gritty goal to kick off the comeback. Elias Pettersson cycled the puck down to Jake Virtanen behind the goal and he poked it to an open Miller for a wraparound attempt, then jammed away at the puck like he was David Perron until it slid out from under Allen and into the net.
  • Virtanen found himself on the top line with Pettersson and Miller, a massive swing from being a healthy scratch in the first game of the postseason. He made those minutes count, scoring the tying goal with some underhanded deceit. He got the puck at the side of the net and looked pass the whole way with Miller driving the net. When he suddenly whipped the puck on net, Allen was completely unprepared, letting it in on the short side.
  • “He played simple. When Jake plays simple like that, he’s a force,” said Miller. “He’s really fast, he’s really big. When he plays within himself and moves the puck along and gets rid of it quickly and goes to the net, good things happen.”
  • Pettersson picked up his second assist of the night on Virtanen’s goal, giving him 11 points in 9 postseason games. His work on the goal deserves a longer look: he made some slick moves on the zone entry to control the puck and create space before feeding Miller, who cycled up high while Pettersson was taking Tyler Bozak to spin class.
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  • Also worth a longer look: Hughes breaking Sanford’s ankles with this nifty move at the blue line. Nothing really came of this, but it was still neat.
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  • Troy Stecher got a lot of flak for his performance in Games 3 and 4, but he bounced back in Game 5 when moved away from the matchup against Ryan O’Reilly. While he still played primarily against tough competition like the Brayden Schenn line, that was a better matchup for Stecher and it showed in the results when he was on the ice: shot attempts were 21-14 for the Canucks with Stecher on the ice at 5-on-5. 
  • Stecher made a great play on the game-winning goal, kicking the puck out of the defensive zone when his stick was tied up in a battle with Sanford. Brandon Sutter tipped the puck ahead, where it took a fortuitous bounce off a linesman’s skate to centre ice. That’s where Motte hustled onto the puck, stealing it from Vince “Not a Country Singer” Dunn. Motte was suddenly in alone and he zipped the puck off the post and in.
  • You could tell Motte’s performance made him a target for the Blues, as he got the star treatment from David Perron. The two clashed by the benches on a line change and Perron got the better of the altercation, coming away with Motte’s stick. Motte, however, had a secret ally: Thatcher Demko, who grabbed Perron’s stick in turn, preventing Perron from completing his line change until he could rip his stick away.
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  • There was a scary moment in the second period when Alex Edler took a skate to the side of the head, leaving the ice quickly with a bad cut. He didn’t return, though Green suggested that he thought Edler would come back in the third period, so it hopefully isn’t too serious.
  • Aside from a pretty lousy performance on the power play, the Canucks had a superb third period, defending the one-goal lead without getting trapped in their own end of the ice. Notably, Virtanen was one of the players out defending the one-goal lead late in the third period. That shows an elevated level of trust compared to the start of the postseason.
  • “In the third, I thought the big difference was us not sitting back,” said Miller. “We still played hard, we gapped up, we skated, we had a couple good looks in their end, and made them at least go 200 feet for their chances.”
  • It nearly all fell apart with just seconds left, however, and it was Miller to blame. First, Miller missed an empty net from centre ice that would have sealed the game. Then, with 9 seconds left, Miller got the puck on his stick in the defensive zone, with plenty of time to clear the puck. Instead, he flubbed the clearance, Pietrangelo kept the puck in, and the Blues created a mad flurry in front of the net, throwing their hands up in celebration of a goal as time expired. 
  • Canucks fans everywhere collectively held their breath as the referees waved off the goal, then went to video review. Thankfully for the blood pressure of Canucks fans, the replay showed the puck never fully crossed the goal line and, even if it did, it was after time expired.
  • Thus, the rollercoaster ride continues. The Canucks take a 3-2 series lead and are one win away from the second round.