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IWTG: Canucks clamp down on the Coyotes, first-line Jake Virtanen scores game-winner

Canucks 3 - 1 Coyotes
IWTG Banner - 2019-20

When the 2019-20 Canucks schedule came out, it’s unlikely anyone was circling January 16th on their calendar. Let’s face it, a mid-season matchup against the Arizona Coyotes on a Thursday in the middle of what is typically the coldest month of the year in Vancouver? No thank you.

Except that innocuous Thursday night matchup turned into a clash of titans, as the two top teams in the Pacific Division — at least by points percentage — faced off.

Sure, being the two top teams in the Pacific might not be saying much (and the Flames technically passed both the Coyotes and the Canucks in points percentage before the game started with their win over the Leafs), but this was still, in a way, a marquee matchup.

You could also pitch it as veteran stars vs the young stars of tomorrow. Taylor Hall vs Elias Pettersson! Phil Kessel vs Brock Boeser! Oliver Ekman-Larsson vs Quinn Hughes! Michael Chaput vs Bo Horvat! Adin Hill vs Jacob Markstrom!

Okay, this matchup thing got away from me at the end there. I mean, Hill is six years younger than Markstrom.

Let’s face it, it’s hard to drum up excitement for a game against the Coyotes, but you shouldn’t sleep on them. They’ve got speed, even if they mainly use it to make life miserable for opposing teams in the neutral zone. They’ve got game-breaking skill in Hall, a decent power play with Phil Kessel, and some top-tier defencemen.

Most importantly, they have fantastic goaltending, as long as Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta can get and stay healthy.

In other words, the path to the playoffs — or the path to a playoff run beyond the first round — will likely go through the Coyotes, so the Canucks and their fans better get amped up to face them. You have no choice but to get hyped up about playing the Coyotes, even if this less-than-thrilling game didn’t exactly help. I know, because I watched this game.

  • This game wasn’t terrible, by any means, it was just weirdly inconsistent. There were long stretches of nothing really happening, then it got momentarily exciting when it seemed like something amazing was about to happen, and then the amazing thing didn’t happen. It was frustrating.
  • A sign for how exciting the game was: the first “highlight” in the NHL’s recap video above is an unscreened point shot by Chris Tanev that was easily blockered into the corner. The third “highlight”: a weak, unscreened wrist shot from 40 feet out by Derek Stepan that went directly into Markstrom’s glove. Be still my beating heart. If those are the highlights they’re leading with, it’s slim pickings.
  • There was some early excitement when the fourth line surprised the Coyotes by stealing the puck at the blue line, with Jay Beagle tipped a Tyler Motte pass into the top corner. There was just one problem: the Canucks didn’t steal the puck at the blue line. They stole it outside the blue line. The linesman let it go thinking the Coyotes played the puck back into their zone, but a challenge from Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet quickly overturned the goal.
  • The Coyotes eventually opened the scoring thanks to Taylor Hall, who got in on the forecheck, nabbed a deflected puck out of mid-air, dropped it to his stick, and centred for Christian Dvorak, who fired it into the net faster than you can type on a DVORAK keyboard. Oscar Fantenberg, parked in front, didn’t get to him in time, as he’s a die-hard QWERTY guy. Blame Mavis Beacon.
  • It feels like Alex Edler has been a lot more physical this season. Perhaps it’s that grizzled old-man strength. He lowered the boom on his fellow countryman Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the first period, sending him spinning to the ice with a solid body check.
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  • The Canucks’ first go-around on the power play wasn’t pretty, as they had trouble gaining the zone and then didn’t take shooting opportunities when they had them. They looked better on their second power play. First Elias Pettersson’s one-timer hit the post, then Quinn Hughes fired a slap shot off the post and the puck popped out to Bo Horvat, who missed the post entirely. Instead, he sent his snap shot over the Hill and far away into the back of the net.
  • The young stars on the Canucks kept trying fancy moves throughout the game, as if they realized the game lacked excitement and they were trying to spice things up. I particularly enjoyed Quinn Hughes’s spinning between-the-legs backhand bank pass to himself to evade Taylor Hall.
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  • Brandon Sutter returned to the lineup after missing a month with a back injury and looked pretty solid on the wing of the fourth line. He nearly got a goal in the second period on a scramble in front of the net, but Hill made like a surrendering soldier and laid down his arms, getting his glove on Sutter’s shot along the ice.
  • Jake Virtanen is getting his shot on the top line with Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller and cashed in with a goal. After Miller took a hit to get the puck to him, Virtanen made a great play, choosing not to take the easy shot and instead dragging the puck around the net for a wraparound, banking the puck off Hill’s skate and in.
  • Horvat tried to add some bonus excitement to the game late in the second period. After Loui Eriksson forced the puck out of the defensive zone and maybe kinda sorta tripped Jakob Chychrun without a penalty, he centred for Horvat. All alone in front, Horvat could have kept things simple with a deke to the backhand; instead, he tried to go between his legs and roof the puck. It was a noble attempt, but destined for failure.
  • The Canucks and Coyotes sped through the third period like they wanted to get out of the rink before the roads got any worse. At one point the two teams went over seven minutes without a whistle, running straight time like it was a soccer game. Hopefully everyone made it home safely.
  • The Coyotes pulled the goalie for the extra attacker and the Canucks put on the empty net dream team: Loui Eriksson, Bo Horvat, and Tanner Pearson. Brendan Batchelor referred to them as the Insurance Line, and it has a nice ring to it. They’re the only three players on the Canucks with empty net goals this season: Eriksson has two, Horvat had three, and Pearson now has four after his goal in this game.
  • Eriksson did all the work for the goal, out-battling Jason Demers down the left wing for the puck, then passing up the chance to pad his goalscoring stats in favour of passing to Pearson, who made like a drag queen on a budget and did his own padding.
  • Pearson’s empty net goal was actually an important one for an unexpected reason. Alex Edler passed the puck up that Eriksson fought for, giving him the secondary assist. That assist meant Edler passed Dennis Kearns for the franchise record for most assists by a Canucks defenceman. Edler already held the franchise record for most goals and points for a defenceman, but now he holds all three.