When Drew Doughty declared that the Los Angeles Kings shouldn’t lose 8-2 to a “team like that,” it came after the Canucks’ very first win of the season. The Canucks immediately went on a run, winning four-straight and going 8-1-1 through the rest of October, capping off the month with another win over the Kings.
The Canucks’ fanbase took “team like that” as a rallying cry, embracing the underdog aspect of being a team with low expectations that is on the rise.
Then the Canucks made t-shirts.
I’m not necessarily saying the t-shirts were the turning point of the season, but perhaps they were tempting fate, karma, the hockey gods, or some other spiritual force. Since the Canucks came out with the “team like that” t-shirts on October 31st, they are 11-12-3, which is a 79-point pace over 82 games. If you want to be precise, the shirts were actually available in stores on November 5th, the exact date the Canucks' slide began: they lost six of their next seven games after the shirts were made available.
Sure, the more likely culprit is the tougher schedule in November and December than they faced in the halcyon days of October. Perhaps that schedule revealed who the Canucks really are — an average team that is still on the bubble of the playoffs rather than a true playoff contender — but it feels a lot better to blame something ephemeral like a hubristic t-shirt than to face a harsh reality.
On the other hand, with yet another win over the Kings, the Canucks are on a four-game winning streak. They’ve leapfrogged over the Edmonton Oilers, who have been on a precipitous 10-game slide, and now sit in the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, with two games in hand on the Oilers to boot.
That might be more of an indictment of the strength of the Pacific Division, and the Western Conference in general, but it means the Canucks have a chance to recover from the terrible blow the “team like that” t-shirts dealt to them and make the playoffs by the end of the season.
Of course, the 51 shots they gave up to the last-place team in the West didn’t exactly boost my confidence when I watched this game.
- I saw John Shorthouse leaving Rogers Arena after the game and he had a little reminder: “Make sure everyone knows who called the final game on Hockey Night in Canada of the decade.” You got it, Shorty. We won’t forget.
- The boo-birds were out in full force for Doughty. The arena was never louder than when he touched the puck, as the Canucks fans in attendance booed lustily, particularly when he patrolled the point on the power play. The boos were probably for his "team like that" comment, as this was the first game against the Kings in Vancouver since then, but I'm sure there are many reasons to boo Doughty, so who can say?
- Let’s be clear: the Canucks as a whole did not play well in this game. They didn’t get a single shot through the first ten minutes of the game, got out-shot 51-to-26, which is the most shots they’ve given up in a game since March 20th, 2010 against the Detroit Red Wings. And that game went to overtime: the Red Wings “only” had 50 shots in regulation.
- It wasn’t just shots from the outside either. The Kings out-chanced the Canucks 41-to-18 according to Natural Stat Trick, with a whopping 21 “high-danger chances.” The Canucks were inviting the Kings inside like Joyce Summers inviting Spike in for a cup of cocoa.
- “The puck wasn't our friend tonight, that's for sure,” said head coach Travis Green, pointing out that everyone on the team was fighting the puck all night. “I just think we weren't very good with the puck. Even if we got a puck on our stick in our own zone, we had a tough time corralling it to even get it out.”
- “It's too much time and space down low,” said Tyler Motte. “You're not going to win every puck battle in the D-Zone, but when you lose one, you gotta close quick and not give them too much time to take ice and make plays... If we limit time and space, I think we'll get out of our zone cleaner.”
- As you might expect with that many shots against, goaltending was the story of the game. Jacob Markstrom was sharper than the legendary Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, which likely means he slayed an eight-headed dragon during his Christmas break. Markstrom made 49 saves, which is a new career record, and kept bailing out his teammates like they were the auto industry.
- The Canucks got far fewer chances than the Kings, but fortunately for them, Jonathan Quick is quite bad. He has an .893 save percentage and 3.05 GAA this season, which is about how he performed in this game. Don’t worry, Kings fans, he’s only signed through 2023.
- Quick didn’t give up a goal on the Canucks’ first shot, but he did give up a big rebound on their second shot, which led to giving up a goal on the Canucks’ third shot. Jake Virtanen made a nice read in the offensive zone, picking off a pass inside the Kings’ blue line. Quick kicked out his first shot, but Virtanen had plenty of room to finish off the rebound for his 11th goal of the year.
- Interesting note: Virtanen had the same number of goals at this time last year, but scored just four more the rest of the season. Can he improve his second-half performance this season?
- Troy Stecher was throwing his weight around in this game. Sure, that’s not a lot of weight, but it was enough to knock down the 6’5”, 233 lbs Kurtis MacDermid, and Stecher had some other solid hits the rest of the night. He was credited with a team-high four hits, but it felt like they were more.
- Near the end of the first period, Tyler Motte jumped on for a line change and wound up on the ice briefly with Elias Pettersson. It was long enough for Pettersson to create some space for Motte: he charged through the middle of the ice before losing the puck, but also simultaneously knocked the stick out of Jeff Carter’s hands. Motte picked up the loose puck and suddenly found himself wide open as Carter retrieved his stick: he beat Quick cleanly, sniping the puck past his glove with an impressive release.
- That’s goals in back-to-back games, as he’s looking like a young Jeff Cowan. After scoring a goal off a Pettersson assist, the next step is for Motte to start a game on the first line, right? Look out for the ever-dangerous Pettersson-Motte connection.
- The most eye-catching save of the night for Markstrom came in the second period, as he robbed Tyler Toffoli on a breakaway chance. Markstrom just stared him down, then stopped him cold like a disappointed father when Toffoli tried to sneak upstairs. “Not so fast, young man,” his glove seemed to say, “You have a lot of explaining to do.”
- “I feel like [Toffoli] scores every time I'm playing against him,” said Markstrom after the game. “He was laughing after and said he used every move and scored on me, so that's all he had left.”
- For the record, Markstrom is barely exaggerating: Toffoli had 5 career goals against Markstrom in the 9 games they faced each other heading into this game. But it appears he’s run out of ways to beat Markstrom, so he’ll never score against him again, which is definitely not ironic foreshadowing.
- Anze Kopitar finally got to Markstrom, finishing off a rebound while the goaltender did the splits trying to hold the post. The bigger issue was Tyler Myers, who tried to tie up Kopitar’s stick instead of clearing him out physically, ending up completely on the wrong side of the Kings’ captain as he scored.
- That goal came with the Canucks’ fourth line on the ice for a minute-and-a-half while getting hemmed in their own zone. The combination of Tim Schaller, Jay Beagle, and Tyler Motte has played well of late, but they got their teeth kicked in by the Kings. Shot attempts were 25-to-2 with Beagle on the ice at 5-on-5; scoring chances were 12-to-0.
- It’s a good thing Elias Pettersson is hyper-aware on the ice, as he nearly had his head taken off in the third period. He went for a reverse hit on Doughty, but the Kings’ defenceman smartly side-stepped the attempt and shoved him backwards. Pettersson stumbled to the ice and saw Blake Lizotte coming just in time, pulling his head in like a turtle to avoid Lizotte’s knee.
- The Kings tied up the game on a bad bounce for the Canucks. A point shot pinballed off Chris Tanev and Kopitar, landing on the stick of Toffoli, who had a wide open net with Markstrom at his mercy. I guess since Toffoli ran out of ways to beat Markstrom, he had to invent a new one. So, make that 6 goals in 10 games against Markstrom.
- The game didn’t stay tied for long, as the Lotto Line responded 19 seconds later with a slick passing play. Brock Boeser banked the puck off the boards for J.T. Miller to skate onto, then Miller centred past a hapless Doughty to Pettersson, who left no doubt with his one-time finish. It was an impressive shot as a left-hand shot coming down the left wing, particularly since the pass was in towards his skates.
- That’s all the help Markstrom would need. The Kings had 12 more shots on goal in the final 12 minutes, but Markstrom turned them all aside. The question now is whether he’ll get the start Sunday night in Calgary as well. Markstrom is coming off the Christmas break, so he’s had some rest, but he’s started nine straight games: is it worth it going back to Markstrom for a tenth-straight game, playing him on back-to-back nights, after he faced 51 shots or should the team turn to the recently-returned Thatcher Demko?
Markstrom made it simple: “If they want me to play, I'll play. I love playing hockey.”