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IWTG: Stars frustrate the Canucks to continue November's woes

Canucks 2 - 4 Stars
IWTG Banner - 2019-20

“October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron.”

That was J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but she may as well have been writing about the 2019-20 Canucks season. October was going so well, then November showed up and extinguished the good times like a candle in a Jack O’Lantern at the end of Halloween.

The Canucks have won just two of eight games in November, with a 2-4-2 record. November has taken its toll in injuries, taking two centres out of the lineup in Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle, and taken its toll in fatigue, as players have had to play big minutes against tough opponents.

Bo Horvat notably had to leave Canucks practice early on Thursday morning and get attended to by medical staff, which he attributed to playing over 27 minutes in the Canucks’ previous game. He played over 20 minutes Thursday night against the Stars.

November has also taken its toll on the Canucks’ overall record and made it look awfully familiar. After 20 games last season, the Canucks were 10-8-2. This season, they’re 10-7-3. In other words, 10 wins and 10 losses. The difference is this season’s Canucks got one more game to overtime before losing.

There are a lot of positive signs still — their underlying numbers are substantially better than last season — but this November cold streak could put a chill in the optimism of the fanbase.

The nice part is, the month is only half over. The Canucks still have seven more games in November to turn things around and make it a month to remember instead of one to forget. Or, if you’re more pessimistic, that’s not a nice thing at all: there are still seven more games to go in this dreadful, no good, very bad month. What a drag.

As for me, I’m going to do as Monty Python taught me: always look at the bright side of life. I pursed my lips and whistled as I watched this game.

  • The Stars are a heavy team — heaviest in the league by team name — and it showed on the ice. The Stars stymied the Canucks’ stars by giving them very little space to work with, which is ironic given that stars generally have a lot of space to work with. Like, all of space. 
  • With Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle both out, Tyler Graovac drew into the lineup to centre the fourth line. He barely played, getting just 5:31 in ice time, with a big chunk of that coming in a shift lasting 1:43 when he iced the puck once and failed to get the puck deep another time. In other words, it wasn’t the greatest Canucks debut for Graovac. 
  • What was more interesting is who else got the Graovac treatment from Travis Green: Loui Eriksson played just 5:51, with over two minutes of that coming on the penalty kill. He played under four minutes at even strength. When mixing up the lines, Tim Schaller got the call to play up the lineup over Eriksson.
  • Jordie Benn got the crowd roaring with a massive hit on Nick Caamano, likely because he took exception to the number of A’s in his last name. That’s too many A’s. Denis Gurianov didn’t like the hit and punished Benn by volunteering his face to be punched, probably hoping that Benn would hurt his hand by punching too many times.
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  • On the opening goal, a Jamie Benn stretch pass caught Tyler Myers too high up in the neutral zone, leading to a 2-on-1 with Alex Edler caught in no man’s land, with no Wonder Woman to save him. Tyler Seguin flipped a pass through to Justin Dowling to send him in alone on Jacob Markstrom. Dowling toe-dragged the puck and brilliantly elevated it like a Master Chef contestant.
  • Sven Baertschi has been getting better every game and his line with J.T. Miller and Adam Gaudette was the Canucks’ best early on, with Baertschi creating a couple of their best chances. For all the fuss over him supposedly shying away from contact, there’s been no sign of that: he went hard to the net in the first period, drawing a penalty while staying strong enough on the puck to still get a good chance on net.
  • “If I play physical and I'm involved, and I'm getting hit, I'm making hits, then that's when I play my best games,” said Baertschi. “That's part of the game that's also the most fun. You want to be bumped around out there...I love it. Being around the net, it's painful around the net, but that's what I like, and that's where I scored my goals usually.”
  • When I asked Troy Stecher about the Stars’ second goal, where he got turned inside out by Blake Comeau, he fixed me with a steely glare: “You have to watch the whole play. You can’t just watch that little part.”
  • I take Stecher’s point. Watching the whole play, you can see that Stecher was following his man across the ice, anticipating the dump in. Comeau was allowed to attack straight up the middle because Jake Virtanen didn’t pick him up in the neutral zone, leaving Stecher flat-footed with little choice but to gamble one way and hope for the best. The worst happened and Comeau cut to the inside as soon as Stecher’s skates were pointed to the outside, then sent a backhand past Jacob Markstrom while falling to the ice.
  • “You get caught in no man's land and you just hope and pray that you get a piece of him or the puck,” explained Stecher. “I kind of wish I would have maybe acted like an offensive lineman in football and just kind of jammed him. Even if I miss him, it might catch him off-guard and he might fumble it or lose his balance...but it happened so quick.”
  • Virtanen ended up on the ice for all four Stars’ goals, which he wasn’t happy about after the game. He did, however, get a goal of his own. He made a nice drop pass to Tanner Pearson to gain the offensive zone, then skated wide as Pearson sent a hard shot off Anton Khudobin’s far pad, looking for a rebound. Khudobin kicked out a big one and Virtanen got all of the puck with his backhand, sending it into the cage like Andy Samberg.
  • The Line Blender 3000™ was in full slice-and-dice mode in a game where Travis Green seemed reticent to play his fourth line. Nine different combinations of forwards played at least a minute together. Miller bounced around the most, leading to a team-high 24:29 in ice time, his highest TOI in his career by over two minutes. He had more minutes than Rip Hunter, Time Master.
  • Miller was effective in puck possession in those minutes, keeping the puck moving in the right direction, but he somehow finished without a single shot on goal himself and just one shot attempt. Similarly, Bo Horvat didn’t have a single shot on goal when he played over 27 minutes last game against the Nashville Predators. Perhaps the fatigue of playing that many minutes makes it tougher to create offensive chances.
  • Stecher was pumped up to tie the game midway through the second period. Pearson’s pressure on the forecheck forced Khudobin to cough up the puck, leading extended offensive zone pressure. Eventually the puck came around to Stecher, who sent a wrist shot through traffic that dodged, ducked, dipped, dove, and dodged its way past Khudobin.
  • What was with the boisterous celebration? “When you get scored on like that and you get embarrassed you kind of just want to hide and you can't,” said Stecher. “You feel bad for the group, you feel like you let them down, so to get that back, it just felt like I got it back for the guys, you know?”
  • After that tying goal, however, the Stars shut things down with a stultifying trap game that gave the Canucks few quality chances. Perhaps the Canucks were frustrated and tried to force things, as they gave up too many turnovers that led to dangerous chances — “When you turn the puck over, you're going to give up rush chances,” said Green, who seemed frustrated by the frequency of turnovers.
  • One of those turnovers led to the game-winning goal. Jordie Benn tried to force a shot with no lane: it was blocked and the Stars counter-attacked with numbers and, also, hockey players. The 4-on-2 proved too much to handle, as the Stars executed a cute passing play to give Seguin a tap-in.
  • The Canucks had a much stronger third period, but the Stars gave them no room to maneuver and another turnover wound up behind Markstrom. Alex Edler, looking to create a transition chance, tried to force a pass through the neutral zone that was picked off by Joe Pavelski. That quickly turned into a 2-on-1 and Alex Radulov, with the puck on a string, avoided a sliding Stecher, who was taking away the pass, and tucked the puck five-hole.
  • That was it for the scoring, though Bo Horvat had one more fantastic chance for the Canucks. He danced through four Dallas skaters, before Khudobin turned him aside. In a final bit of irony, it wouldn’t have even been a 5-on-5 goal if he had scored, as Markstrom had just reached the bench for the extra attacker to make it 6-on-5.
  • “Tonight was one of those games where a heavier team...came in and played a good road gam,” said Green. “We had a lot of good offensive zone time, we spent a lot of time in their zone, but a lot of nights that doesn't get you a win. We’ll learn from this game.”