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IWTG: Canucks dismiss the Flames to end 2019 on 5-game winning streak

Canucks 5 - 2 Flames
IWTG Banner - 2019-20

It’s been three years since the Canucks last had a five-game winning streak. It came right around the same time in the season, too.

It was the 2016-17 season and the Canucks were struggling at the Christmas break. They were 14-18-3 and third-last in the Western Conference. For a team that was still refusing to admit they were rebuilding — they had just sent multiple young assets to the Florida Panthers for Erik Gudbranson in the off-season — it wasn’t ideal.

But then the Canucks came out of the Christmas break and went on a run, rattling off six-straight wins to climb into a playoff spot. It was heady times in Vancouver. Bo Horvat helped a kid get a wiener dog! He and Sven Baertschi were starting to look like the future of the Canucks’ offence! Ryan Miller was lights out in net! Nikita Tryamkin was really big!

Alas, it didn’t last. After that six-game win streak, the Canucks won just 10 of their next 41 games, with an 8-game losing streak to end the season that crashed them down the standings and earned them the fifth-overall pick at the 2017 draft. At the very least, they got one hell of a consolation prize: Elias Pettersson.

In many ways, that six-game streak was the last hurrah of a team that needed to bottom out to admit they needed to fully rebuild. At the trade deadline, the Canucks finally shipped off a couple veterans, trading away Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen, albeit for prospects rather than draft picks, and the rebuild was on in earnest.

Fans can expect that this winning streak is indicative of the opposite: that this is a team on the rise, and that this is the first of many such winning streaks to come in 2020. Instead of the streak vaulting them to the edge of the playoffs, it has them all the way into second place in the Pacific. At the very least, they’re ending off the year and the decade in style.

I bid farewell to 2019 as I watched this game.

  • The Canucks as a whole didn’t really defeat the Los Angeles Kings in their last game — Jacob Markstrom did, making a ridiculous 49 saves on 51 shots. You could tell the Canucks didn’t want a repeat of that performance, where they took over 10 minutes to record their first shot on goal, because they had a much stronger start against the Flame. Their start might not have been as good as Asafa Powell’s, but at least they left the blocks when the starter’s gun sounded this time.
  • David Rittich, on the other hand, didn’t even know there was a race happening. “Big Save Dave,” as Flames fans call him, couldn’t even come up with the smallest of saves against the Canucks. Tyler Myers scored two softies early on, which was ultimately the difference in the game. I’d offer up an alternative nickname, but “Rickety Rittich” sounds way too mean.
  • The opening goal came on an early power play, with the second unit going to work. Antoine Roussel, a relatively recent addition to the unit, won a board battle down low alongside Adam Gaudette, who moved the puck up to Jake Virtanen at the point. He relayed the puck to Myers, whose wrist shot Rittich never seemed to see, partly because his defenceman, T.J. Brodie, cut across his eyes right as Myers took the shot.
  • Myers added another at even strength on an even softer wrist shot. Brock Boeser protected the puck brilliantly from Brodie, then found Myers at the point. There’s no excuses for Rittich on this one: Myers’ shot was unscreened and somehow ducked through Rittich’s legs like Nate Robinson.
  • At the other end of the ice, Thatcher Demko got his first start since December 7th, and quickly laid to rest any concerns that he might be rusty after recovering from his concussion. At one point he even made an intentional save with his mask, something he’s been known to do. It was a pretty good indication that he was feeling confident in his head health, if a little disconcerting.
  • An undisciplined penalty by Matthew Tkachuk gave the Canucks another power play and the second unit got the start. It turned out to be a good move. First Virtanen rang a slap shot from the right faceoff circle off the post, then on a subsequent rush, Virtanen’s centring pass deflected in off Travis Hamonic’s stick for his 12th goal of the season.
  • As much as it was a lucky bounce, it was also a brutal play by Rittich, who massively overplayed the initial pass with Tanner Pearson coming right up the middle. Even if it didn’t get deflected, Rittich would have left Pearson with a wide open net. Rittich was, quite understandably, pulled after Virtanen’s goal and replaced by Cam Talbot.
  • Virtanen had a two-point night, giving him six points in his last seven games. He’s got a dozen goals, more than some of the biggest stars in the NHL, like Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau. At 5-on-5, he’s putting up points at a rate second only to Elias Pettersson on the Canucks. And yet, it’s things like this flyby in the neutral zone that drive a coach batty.
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  • The Canucks were in a good defensive position until Virtanen swooped past Mark Jankowski, just hoping to pick off a pass for a home run play. It turned an innocuous rush into a dangerous 4-on-2 for the Flames. This isn’t to pick on Virtanen, but merely to give an example of why he doesn’t always get the opportunities that some think he should, given his offensive upside.
  • You could tell this just wasn’t going to be Calgary’s night when their best chance of the first period, a breakaway for Michael Frolik off an awful Canucks line change, was nullified because Milan Lucic couldn’t get out of the zone fast enough to avoid the offside call. James Neal would have skated fast enough to get out of the zone
  • Speaking of Lucic, the best moment of the game was easily when the frustrated Flames decided to get scrummy with the Canucks’ fourth line. Lucic went after Tim Schaller and got a little too aggressive, at which point Schaller audibly said, “Relax, buddy! Relax!” like Lucic was an over-excited schnauzer.
  • The Flames got on the board on the 4-on-4 that resulted from the scrum, as Jay Beagle and T.J. Brodie got coincidental minors. Demko gave up a rare rebound on a Sean Monahan shot, and, like the Canucks at the 2015 draft, neither Quinn Hughes nor Myers picked up Rasmus Andersson.
  • The Bo Horvat line played the matchup role against the Monahan line and had a strong game, combining to restore the three-goal lead in the third period. Loui Eriksson gained the zone and dropped the puck to Horvat, who sent a shot towards the net, looking for a tip. Instead, the puck landed on Tanner Pearson’s stick and he spun around and shot. Talbot, who somehow lost track of the puck and seemed to think Pearson had passed it, left half the net open for Pearson, which was more than he needed.
  • Demko had a strong performance, but his save selection left something to be desired on the Flames’ second goal. He got turned around making the initial save off the rush and, instead of getting square to the puck, stretched his pad across the net with his back to the play, a technique goalie coaches call “oh god oh god help help help.” He tried to recover for Noah Hanifin’s shot from the high slot, but wound up in the “Marriage Proposal” pose, which is recommended for asking your significant other to make a lifelong commitment to you, but not so much for stopping a puck.
  • That goal came with a minute left, closing the gap to two goals, but that’s as close as the Flames would come. With the Flames net empty, Alex Edler sent a dangerous pass into the middle in the defensive zone, but Horvat muscled it out of the zone, then dove out to spring Pearson on a breakaway. Pearson was blatantly hooked to the ice by Andersson, which would have been an automatic goal in lieu of a penalty shot, but Pearson scored from his knees anyway.
  • That capped off a three-point night for Pearson, who has been streaky, but is one of the Canucks’ top scorers over the past couple months and is on-pace for 55 points this season. The Pearson for Gudbranson trade is a pretty nice feather in Jim Benning’s cap.