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Ben Hutton and Erik Gudbranson are embracing the challenge of unexpected top-pairing roles

Game against the Penguins "bugged us, we took it personally, and we want to be better."
Erik Gudbranson skates for the Vancouver Canucks during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Injuries are an inevitability in hockey, but it’s rare that one game wipes out an entire top pairing. That’s exactly what happened to the Canucks last week: Alex Edler and Chris Tanev both left a game against the Vegas Golden Knights. Tanev is day-to-day — he won’t play Monday night against the Minnesota Wild — but Edler is expected to miss 3-6 weeks with an MCL sprain.

That puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the defence, particularly Ben Hutton and Erik Gudbranson, who have had to fill in for Edler and Tanev as the top pairing.

That means big minutes and tough opposition. On Saturday, Sidney Crosby played 14:36 at 5-on-5; over 11 of those minutes were against the pairing of Hutton and Gudbranson.

“We’re asking a lot out of guys,” said Green on Monday morning. “We’re replacing 25 minutes out of two guys and you’re asking someone else, not only to play those minutes, but to play against the best players in the world.”

Edler and Tanev have played some of the hardest minutes in the NHL so far this season, which has allowed Green to shelter his other pairings to a certain extent. Now, that shelter is gone and, to quote Bob Dylan, a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

“Tanny and the Eagle are our top-two d-men and with them going down, it’s some big minutes,” said Hutton. “Everyone has to climb the ladder and battle a little bit harder and play a little bit smarter.”

The preparation doesn’t change much, however, even when you’re bumped up the lineup and know you’ll be facing difficult competition.

“You’ve got to stick to your gameplan, as much as you gotta know who you’re playing, someone like Sidney Crosby or something like that,” said Hutton. “You’ve got to play your game: hard, make simple plays and when you get the chance to jump up in the rush, do it.”

“Each night you don’t exactly know who you’re going to be playing,” he added. “For example, when we played Pittsburgh, I didn’t know if I was going to be against the Crosby line or the Malkin line, and it’s not perfect matchups, no matter where you are. You’ve gotta know every player out there and what they’re capable of.”

For Gudbranson, the knowledge that you’ll be facing some of the best players in the world helps him focus on his game.

“It makes for a hard night, but it also gives you that level of focus, that you have a job to do,” said Gudbranson. “Your game is not expected to be pretty, you’re not necessarily expected to get up in the rush at all times and create those offensive opportunities, but shutting them down is your job for the night and making it hard on guys.”

Gudbranson talked about the importance of minimizing mistakes when you’re in that shutdown role, but acknowledged that mistakes will happen no matter what — “You play against top lines like that every night, they’re going to get their chances.” For how he handles mistakes during a game, he turns to the words of a former teammate.

“There’s a saying that a former teammate of mine, a former Canuck, Willie Mitchell said to me: ‘It’s never the first mistake that ends up in your net, it’s always the second,’” said Gudbranson. “It’s the second consecutive one.”

“If they get an opportunity, okay: you get ‘em back next shift,” he added. “It’s the way the game of hockey is played now, it really is quite a bit of a chess match. It’s so systematic, it’s so heavily coached that you gotta do what’s in front of you and consistently do it, and if they get another opportunity the next shift, you come back at them the shift after that and don’t let them do it, just remind them that you’re there for the rest of the night.

“It’s a tough job but it’s a lot of fun.”

So far this season, Green has stuck with consistent defence partners — only three pairings have played over 100 minutes together at 5-on-5. Of those three, Hutton and Gudbranson have been on the ice for the most goals against, but there’s some indication in the numbers that they’ve played better defensively than those goals against would suggest.

Hutton and Gudbranson have the lowest rate of expected goals against of any of the Canucks’ defence pairings, as calculated by analytics site Corsica, while Hutton leads all Canucks’ defencemen with the lowest rate of scoring chances against according to Natural Stat Trick.

Green, who seemed loath to praise Hutton last season, was practically effusive with it on Monday.

“I think preparation for him has put him in a spot that he can play with confidence and that’s a big thing,” he said. “It’s easy to say ‘be confident,’ but if you’re not prepared...he’s put in the work and now he’s getting the opportunity and he’s ready for it. He’s playing well. He’s got to continue that, but I’m happy for him.”

“He’s been very good,” said Gudbranson about his defence partner. “His confidence is definitely there comparatively to how we played together the prior years. He’s grown. He’s grown immensely, in fact. I think he’s doing a great job, he’s been extremely professional about going about his business over the past few years. It’s impressive to see a guy’s game go up like that.”

Hutton is quick to credit Gudbranson as well.

“I think me and Guddy, since we’ve been paired up together, have had pretty good chemistry,” said Hutton. “We work well off each other and we’re not afraid to talk things out. You know, not every single shift is going to be perfect, so when we get to the bench, we have no problem sorting it out, talking it out, and I think that helps us a lot.”

Some of those imperfect shifts struck towards the end of the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. After shutting down the Crosby line very effectively in the first period and still playing well through the second, the train came off the rails in the third period.

“I think Hutty and I have played well. You know, obviously that’s excluding the last ten minutes of that Pittsburgh game,” said Gudbranson. “That last game, it bugged us, we took it personally, and we want to be better. It’s a challenge, it’s an opportunity for us, we’re gonna make the best of it.”