This was the eighth time in the Canucks’ 50-year history that they have played on Leap Day, and it generally hasn’t been too kind to the Canucks. In fact, they’ve only won once on Feb. 29 in their 50-year history, which also happens to be one of the 16 times the Canucks have scored nine-plus goals in their history.
The Canucks beat the Penguins 9-5 on Feb. 29, 1984. That game featured a Canucks record: the most points in a single game, with seven points from Patrik Sundstrom. It also featured a four-point performance from then-rookie Cam Neely, but we mustn’t dwell.
There were no seven-point heroics from the Canucks in Toronto this Leap Day, no four-point nights from a rookie. Thatcher Demko and Frederik Andersen kind of looked like goaltenders from the ’80s in the opening minutes of the game, but that’s as close as it got.
Instead, we got another performance from the Canucks that leaves fans wondering just who they are. Are they a legitimate playoff team or a team on the bubble that risks falling out of the playoff picture?
After this loss to the Leafs, the Canucks are currently in third place in the Pacific Division, just two points ahead of the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and Arizona Coyotes. They have games in hand on the Jets and the Coyotes, but that advantage could slip away in a hurry. The Canucks can’t afford to go on a losing streak.
It goes beyond just Jacob Markstrom being out and Demko struggling to replace that kind of elite goaltending. The Canucks appear to be two entirely different teams at home and on the road.
At home, the Canucks are among the elite teams in the NHL, with a 20-7-4 record, out-scoring their opponents by 33 goals. Only four teams have a better home record than the Canucks.
On the road, the Canucks are 24th in the NHL, with a 14-17-2 record, barely better than the New Jersey Devils.
Extrapolate their home record over 82 games and you get 116 points, one shy of their franchise record in 2010-11. Their road record? 75 points, same as the disappointing 2015-16 season that kicked off their current run of four-straight out of the playoffs.
That’s the swing we’re talking about here — equal to the best Canucks team we’ve ever seen at home and one of the most disappointing on the road — which is why it’s so hard to figure out this team.
Fortunately for the Canucks, they have more home games than road games remaining in their schedule, but they’ll still need to figure out their road woes sooner rather than later. At the very least, it’ll make their road games easier to watch, because I was wishing this wasn’t a Leap Year when I watched this game.
Demko has given up two goals in the opening eight minutes of all three of his starts since Markstrom got injured. I wouldn’t put the blame on Demko for the first of those starts in Montreal, but he gave up a soft opening goal in Ottawa and didn’t look good on either of the two goals in this game. He settled in after that and allowed just one more goal for the rest of the game, but he’s got to make like Kramer and settle a lot more quickly.
Of course, the Leafs’ opening goal never would have happened had Tyler Myers not whiffed on a slow-moving puck behind the Canucks net, losing an opportunity to gain possession and clear the puck out of the defensive zone. Instead, the Leafs kept the puck, worked it up to Frederik Gauthier at the point, and he whipped a shot past Fantenberg’s attempted block and under Demko’s arm.
The Canucks’ fourth line responded, with the whole line getting in on the action. Jay Beagle hustled in on the forecheck, winning a battle with Rasmus Sandin, then moved the puck to Brandon Sutter, who made a savvy play to Tyler Motte at the back door for the finish. Sutter’s pass went through Jason Spezza’s legs like Kyle Lowry trying to go through George Hill.
Then Demko allowed an ugly one: Auston Matthews let a shot fly from a bad angle on the left wing and it found a hole in Demko’s stance, going straight through him like Mariette through JOI in Blade Runner 2049. It was a hard to see where it beat him, but slowing it down, you can see the shot went along the ice and slipped under his right pad in the tiny A-frame gap between the toe and the rest of the pad.
Five minutes later, the Canucks tied it again. Bo Horvat slammed a one-timer towards the net and it pinballed off a couple sticks, hit Sandin, and dropped at the side of the crease, where Tanner Pearson out-battled Sandin and chipped the puck up under the bar, as opposed to down under in Australia.
- Quinn Hughes has had some defensive peccadilloes in recent games, so it was neat to see him make some stellar defensive plays against William Nylander in this game. He had a great backcheck on a Nylander breakaway in the second period, forcing Nylander wide, then getting his stick on his attempted shot. Then, later in the frame, he got back on another Nylander breakaway, knocking him off stride with a well-timed shove in the back.
I thought Adam Gaudette had a strong game, which fits with his recent performance. He had a superb shift in the third period, where he won a puck on the forecheck and centred for a potential chance. Then, when that chance didn't manifest, he chased down the puck himself and won it back, out-battling three different Leafs to create a scoring chance for himself, forcing Andersen to make a sharp pad save.
Much like the Canucks’ previous game against the Senators, an early goal in the third period took the wind out of their sails. It was 14 seconds into the third in Ottawa and 18 seconds in Toronto, so they lasted four more seconds this time.
It was an unlikely hero for Toronto. Martin Marincin had four career goals in 223 games heading Saturday and no goals so far this season. So, of course, he beat Demko not once, but twice. His first shot from distance rang off the post and Demko couldn’t get back to stop his second shot after overplaying the initial shot, as Marincin beat Chris Tanev to the puck.
That was it for the Canucks, who had 13 shots on goal in the third period, but couldn’t beat Andersen. The Leafs’ top line of Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner matched up well with the Canucks’ top line, as Pettersson and Tyler Toffoli both finished the game with no shots on goal, and J.T. Miller had just two.
Hyman had a particularly great shift to put the game away for good. With the Canucks pulling Demko for the extra attacker, Hyman went to work defensively, with a great shot block on Hughes, then laying out to take away a shooting lane for Pettersson. A moment later Hyman broke (ahem) up the ice, escaping Toffoli and got a breakaway pass from Marner for the empty net dagger.
- Toffoli seemed to take the empty net goal and loss particularly hard. It was his first game without a point as a Canuck, but that’s probably not why he was so upset. He gave Hyman a good hack in the back with his stick, then broke his stick on the post after Hyman scored. Perhaps the Canucks could use a little bit of sore-loser energy in the room to get them back on track.