The Vancouver Canucks’ road trip was not going to plan. The Canucks were looking to make a statement against some of the top teams in the NHL, but through three games that statement appeared to be, “These teams are better than we are.”
On Sunday, the Canucks were facing another of the NHL’s best teams, the 7th-in-the-NHL Washington Capitals. They were doing so on the second half of back-to-backs in an afternoon game with one of their best forwards — Conor Garland — out on the NHL’s COVID protocol and with Thatcher Demko playing his fourth game in six nights.
That’s not typically a recipe for success but the Canucks bucked the odds thanks partly to a complete effort from the entire team but, more specifically, thanks to a breakthrough performance from Elias Pettersson.
The team’s franchise forward hasn’t exactly been playing like a franchise forward this season, unless you consider “getting fans’ hopes up and then leaving them bitterly disappointed” as a pretty accurate representation of the Canucks franchise.
Pettersson’s struggles culminated with a game on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes where pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong. He had some terrible giveaways, accidentally blocked what looked like a sure goal, took a skate to the face, hit the post on his best scoring chance, and snapped his stick in half on another chance, after which he got tripped by the goaltender and went crashing into the boards with no penalty call.
It seemed like there was nowhere to go but up for Pettersson and he went way, way up against the Capitals, scoring two enormous goals to lead the Canucks to the win.
“We don’t have a lot of natural scorers on our team,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau, “Hopefully, it’s not an anomaly or a one-off and he can continue to do this and then that’ll make it an awful lot easier on us.”
Of course, Boudreau had previously said that Pettersson’s game was rounding into form and that the scoring was on its way.
“When you start getting chances — he hit the post last game and he had a couple of breakaways the game before — it was inevitable that he was going to score at some point,” said Boudreau.
Pettersson, for his part, wasn’t worried.
“I know what I’m capable of,” said Pettersson. “Of course, it's been tough for me. I'm trying to play my best hockey every game, and it's been been a slow start.”
With limited media access due to COVID this season, Pettersson hasn’t been grilled by the media about his struggles all that much, so it wasn’t surprising that he was asked about his confidence. At one point, when he was again asked about mental aspect of his struggles, he muttered, “Oh, so it’s just gonna be questions like that.”
That’s a bit of the death-stare Pettersson from earlier in his career popping up and it’s honestly nice to see some of that confident bite back. But also, yeah, it’s going to be questions like that when you go from being a near point-per-game player with strong two-way play and a dominant playoff run under your belt to putting up 19 points in 38 games.
Pettersson is too good of a player to be kept quiet forever but even the biggest believers in Pettersson had to have their confidence rattled a little bit by his struggles this season.
Hopefully, this is just the start of a Pettersson renaissance. Frankly, I don’t think there’s any hope of the Canucks beating the odds and making the playoffs unless Pettersson regains his form and becomes the Canucks’ best forward like he has been in the past.
With Pettersson excelling, it was a lot more pleasant when I watched this game.
- It should be noted that while the Canucks were playing on the second half of back-to-backs, so were the Capitals. Also, the Canucks were missing Garland due to COVID protocol but the Capitals were missing John Carlson, who is tied for 6th in the NHL among defencemen in scoring, for the same reason. Maybe that all balances out.
- A big reason for the three-straight losses on this road trip was the power play going 0-for-12 in those three games, so it was great to see them go 2-for-4 tonight. Of course, that was countered by the penalty kill giving up two goals on two Capitals power plays, so you can’t really say that special teams were the difference.
- Before going 2-for-2 against the Canucks, the Capitals had gone 3-for-33 on the power play in their last 10 games and were 28th in the NHL overall in power play percentage. Despite their firepower up front, the Capitals have had one of the worst power plays in the NHL this season but you wouldn’t know it from Sunday’s game.
- “We’re all concerned about the penalty kill,” said Boudreau. “It’s great that you score power play goals and it was largely overdue…but we’ve got to shore up the penalty kill because I’m a big believer that if you can have your special teams in the top 10 in both categories, you’re usually a playoff team and you’re usually a tough team to beat.”
- Alex Ovechkin opened the scoring with a classic Ovechkin goal: a one-timer from the top of the left faceoff circle. There’s not much shame in giving up a goal like that to Ovechkin — he’s the greatest goalscorer in NHL history for a reason — but it was his third shot attempt from the exact same spot on that power play. Allowing three one-timers from the Ovi spot is like standing around in the open while Steven Seagal ever-so-slowly snipes all of the people around you — eventually, he’s going to get you.
- “I wouldn’t look at [Ovechkin] and he was looking right at me and I said, ‘No more,’” said Boudreau. “If he played against me every day, he’d probably have 110 goals a year. He gets up for it. Seriously, if it wasn’t for Demmer — Ovi had, on one shift, he had two great looks on two-on-ones, he had a couple great looks in the third period.”
- This was an outstanding game by the line of Tanner Pearson, J.T. Miller, and Brock Boeser, particularly in terms of puck possession. When they were on the ice together at 5-on-5, shot attempts were 22-to-8 for the Canucks, as they spent long shifts in the offensive zone. Pearson’s work on the forecheck was phenomenal, repeatedly winning the puck down low below the goal line.
- The only issue is that line couldn’t put the puck in the net. Pearson had the line’s best chance in the final minute of the first period, as J.T. Miller gave him a wide-open net but his stick was checked at the last second by Capitals defenceman Matt Irwin and his shot was sliding wide before it was cleared away by Aliaksei Protas.
- Pettersson responded for the Canucks with his own power play goal in the second period. After a stint as the net-front presence on the power play — an interesting experiment that largely failed because the Canucks never play the puck down low on the power play — Pettersson was moved back to the top of the right faceoff circle where he ought to be at the end of Saturday’s game and started there on Sunday. As 38 Special would say to him, “I want you back where you belong.”
- Pettersson’s goal wasn’t a mirror image of Ovechkin’s — instead of a one-timer blast, Pettersson instead made a patient play to step around the defenceman charging out to take away the shooting lane and whipped the puck off the short-side post and in. Like everything in the frame of a Wes Anderson movie, it was perfectly placed.
- A few minutes later, Pettersson made it 2-1 but the goal came after a strong shift by the Miller line that didn’t allow the Capitals to change. That allowed Pettersson and his linemates, Nils Höglander and Bo Horvat to buzz around the offensive zone until a point shot from Oliver Ekman-Larsson created a rebound. Pettersson’s first shot on the rebound was stopped but then he called bank and put the puck off the backside of goaltender Ilya Samsonov and in.
- Garnet Hathaway had a very stupid game for the Capitals. He took a ridiculously unnecessary penalty for knocking Ekman-Larsson’s helmet off, leading to the Canucks’ game-winning goal but his far worse offence was this elbow to the head of Tyler Motte completely away from the play. Hathaway got a two-minute minor that probably should’ve been a five-minute major and he ought to get a suspension out of it too.
- Horvat gave the Canucks the 3-1 lead with a fantastic shot from the bumper on the power play. He was helped by the threat of Pettersson’s shot: he just missed the net on a one-timer a moment earlier, so the penalty kill was cheating towards him. That left Horvat a little bit more room for a one-timer of his own that went short side on Samsonov.
- Miller’s pass on Horvat’s goal deserves another look because Miller didn’t give Horvat another look. He was looking towards Boeser down low the entire time, completely fooling penalty killer Nick Jensen, who swung his stick to block a pass to Boeser that never came, opening up the passing lane to Horvat on the inside.
- The Capitals mirrored Horvat’s goal with their own power play marker from the bumper. This time, the pass did go down low: Nicklas Backstrom passed to Evgeny Kuznetsov below the goal line, who relayed to Tom Wilson for the finish, with Tyler Myers and Jason Dickinson a step slow to prevent the shot.
- While the Canucks gave up two power play goals, they were much stingier defensively at 5-on-5 and they capably closed out the rest of the third period, protecting the one-goal lead until the final minute, when Boeser beat out an icing and centred for a Miller empty-net goal to seal the win, with Pearson getting the second assist. It was a fitting finish for a dominant effort by that line.