DENVER — The Vancouver Canucks face a long fight to make the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but let it be said that of late they’re not giving up hope.
Facing the wounded Stanley Cup champions in Denver on Wednesday night, the Canucks battled hard and beat the Colorado Avalanche 4-3.
The Canucks got another excellent goaltending performance from Spencer Martin — in stark contrast to the performance of Colorado goalie Pavel Francouz, who gave up four goals on 25 shots — and skated hard as a team at even strength, which allowed them to survive another tough night for the penalty kill, which gave up two more goals against.
Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau may still not be sure which result he’ll get from night to night, or whether his team will be able to find a full 60 minutes, but he says he does know his team is going to work hard.
“Well, I do know one thing, every game they’re going to try real hard and they’re thinking they’re gonna win,” he said. Ever the optimist, he thinks his team could be set to snowball.
And what he saw from his team is what he’s seen in four straight games now, he said.
“We never quit. We took a lot of penalties against a great power play. And even when we got down, we never quit. We were down to Vegas (on Monday) in the third period and we never quit. We got ahead. We just couldn’t hold the lead. Tonight, we were pretty determined not to do that. And that’s a great sign of a team. It’s great sign of a lot of players that never quit. And they want to keep going.”
The Canucks scored first, fell behind in the first and Colorado looked set to blow the doors open. But the Canucks managed to hold on against the high-flying Avalanche, who play at such a fast pace it’s hard to imagine how opponents unaccustomed to playing hockey at Denver’s altitude can catch their breath.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Vegas Golden Knights
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And in the second period the Canucks managed to slow the game to their pace to trade blow for blow with the Avalanche.
That they then scored two goals in the third period by Sheldon Dries, against his old team and Ethan Bear, to take the lead spoke volumes about their self-belief.
“Today we played a full 60 minutes. Last game we only played 50,” Elias Pettersson said with some frankness post-game.
Martin made 33 saves against the team that drafted him. It’s his fifth win of the season and he’s won the confidence of his teammates and his coach.
“He’s playing so well. Whenever we have a breakdown on defence, he’s there. He made some incredible saves today,” Pettersson said.
Boudreau said it’s a great dilemma to have. Thatcher Demko was excellent last Friday but then turned out to be under the weather vs. Vegas on Monday, though he didn’t tell anyone he wasn’t feeling well until after the game, Boudreau said.
“Demko was pretty sick the other night, but we didn’t know that (till after the game),” Boudreau said. “But the game before he was awesome. And we know he’s going to be awesome for a long time. So it’s not like all of a sudden he’s going to be relegated to being a backup. But Spencer (Martin) played really good today.
“It is good to have the option.”
Spencer Martin was so focused on preparing for the start in Denver that he forgot to check the travel schedule before he left the hotel. He packed his bag and brought it to the team bus pre-game, thinking it was the usual routine and that the team would fly to Las Vegas where they’ll play the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday, post-game.
But between the late faceoff — the game started at 8 p.m. Mountain Time — and likely wanting to avoid the temptations of three nights in Vegas before their Saturday game, the Canucks are staying over in Denver on Wednesday night.
He took a ribbing from his teammates about it post-game.
Martin smiled about the gaffe.
Beating Colorado, who drafted him in 2013 and for whom he made three difficult starts in 2016-17, was extra satisfying he admitted.
“I’d be lying to you if I told you it wasn’t awesome to play here. It’s good to be back but even better to beat them,” he said.
“We showed a ton of resilience. There was that extended power play and they put a ton of pressure on us but other than that, like five on five, I thought we were the better team,” he said. “To come back on a team like that, it’s a special win.”
Playing on the road, Boudreau had to accept something he’s been cautious about doing: letting Pettersson go head to head against the opposing’s team’s best.
It’s been more about Boudreau’s nervousness over Andrei Kuzmenko’s defensive game and not so much about Pettersson. Pettersson is a two-way dynamo, but Kuzmenko is still figuring things out defensively.
“You know, I thought he was OK,” Boudreau said of Pettersson’s performance under pressure. “And I say that, like it’s not only MacKinnon, it’s that Makar and Toews was always on with (MacKinnon) every time. I mean, I think Petey wanted the challenge and I think he did a really good job.”
Kuzmenko did well enough too, he said, so playing the Pettersson line in harder matchups may very well happen again.
“I thought Kuze was pretty good for the first two periods. He missed an assignment in the third but I mean it’s tough (at this altitude), sometimes you get a little tired a little quicker,” the coach said.
Pettersson ended the game in the negative in team shot-attempts when he was on the ice against the Avalanche’s top players, but that’s to be expected when a team as good as Colorado is trailing late. Score effects always mean that the trailing team dominates play.
Kuzmenko, who didn’t see the ice much lately in contrast to Pettersson, finished the game as a positive player by the same metric. The Canucks’ top line battled the Avalanche’s to a standstill over the first 50 minutes of the game.
There was no bigger moment that showed how much Pettersson wants to win that when he dove head first in an effort block a shot late in the game.
The puck didn’t catch him in the face, but if it had, Pettersson said he didn’t care.
“I’m a hockey player. I’m not a model and I’ll never be,” he said with a smile.
And that was with his mom in the stands too.
“She’ll be pretty scared,” he grinned.
Controlling the slot
The Canucks again did a good job of preventing the Avalanche from getting inside. Colorado’s lone even-strength goal was scored by Mikko Rantanen driving the crease, but there weren’t many other moments like that.
The even-strength shot maps makes it clear: Colorado simply didn’t get many shots from the slot at even strength.
But on the other hand, the Canucks did a great job generating opportunities from on top of the crease. Colorado may have out-shot the Canucks overall, but the Canucks did a great job generating more in-tight chances, especially the Horvat and Dries goals.
Bo Horvat has 12 goals in 12 games. Of 16 goals in 20 games if you prefer.
Or 30 goals in his last 38.
The Canucks’ captain is scoring in all ways and most of it is pure skill.
He’s been working with Adam Oates, he told Postmedia earlier this week, including how to find space in front of the net and how to improve his tips and deflections of shots from the outside.
He scored his 16th of the season on a deft tip of a point shot by Bear, the sixth time this season he’s scored on either a tip or a deflection.
It came moments after Conor Garland had a goal waved off in similar fashion, with the officials ruling after a review that Garland had made a significant impact on Francouz’s ability to play his position before he directed the puck into the net.
Garland wasn’t impressed on the bench, waving his hand in frustration.
After the game he said his reaction in-game was still his feeling after the game, but he wasn’t much fussed because the team won.
“That’s a goal, but it is what it is. Good to get the win,” he said. “Usually when you get one called back it doesn’t go in your favour on the night but it’s good for us, good for Bo to get one right back.”
Did the NHL make the right call?
Take your chances
Unlike the Canadian soccer team, Ilya Mikheyev knows you only get so many chances to score in a game and while he didn’t get the shot he probably wanted, he still got the goal.
In a surprising opening, Cale Makar and Devon Toews, two of the league’s, not just the Avalanche’s, best defencemen, fumbled the puck behind their own net and Mikheyev, Johnny on the spot in the slot, took Elias Pettersson’s quick pass out from behind the net and was able to flip it over Avalanche goalie Francouz.
In similar terms, Dries scored his goal, grabbing a great chance.
Dries scooped up a rebound on his goal, which knotted the score 3-3 five minutes into the third.
Dries played 48 games for the Avalanche over three seasons before signing with the Canucks in 2021.
He grinned when he was asked about scoring against his old team.
“I loved my time here. I enjoyed it. But happy to be here and to score on your old team. It’s always nice,” he said.
Love for the little guy
Boudreau was once a plucky, diminutive minor-league scorer who scrapped for every NHL chance he could get.
It’s clear that in Dries he sees something of himself. He’s been a scorer at every other level, but in the NHL, he’s asked to be a hard-working depth forward, ready to mix it up.
He’s prepared well for the role: he’s never fought in the NHL but he twice posted more than 100 PIMs in junior, partly because he got into lots of scraps.
Fighting isn’t what’s gotten him this far, but playing hard and finding goals has.
“Yeah maybe he sees a little bit of him in me,” Dreis said of Boudreau. “I definitely want to play that game. But Bruce’s given me every opportunity to succeed here and I’m gonna take advantage of it.”
“Whenever the coaching staff has confidence in you, it instills confidence in yourself.”
Boudreau smiled a little when the comparison between his own trajectory and Dries’ was made.
“You want to give them a chance because I know it was something that didn’t happen as much as I would have liked it for me. And he knew he had a bad game, the last game and a half and I said ‘you got to pick it up.’ And I thought he went out there and he picked it up,” said Boudreau, who played 141 NHL games in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mostly for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Dries now has five points in nine NHL games this season. That’s handy production from a depth centre.
Go to the net
Mikko Rantanen is a big man who has 13 goals this season and it’s no surprise.
Both his goals in the first period spoke to his talents. On the first he kept his stick on the ice and drove to the back door of Spencer Martin’s crease and whether he got his stick on Devon Toews’s hard pass across wasn’t clear, but whatever happened the puck hit him and ended up in the back of the Canucks’ net.
His second goal was all about reading what’s going on in front of him, as he found the top of the net over a scrambling Martin on a power play.
And then, of course, he took Tyler Myers’ stick to the face, losing some teeth in the process in the second period.
Cale Makar is the fastest defenceman in NHL history to get to 200 points.
It’s truly remarkable. He did it faster than the likes of Phil Housley and Brian Leetch, two defencemen who played their early careers in a high-scoring environment.
He’s a wizard with the puck and is a threat to score every time he touches it.
His goal on a five-on-three was no surprise, especially when he hit the post right before.
No time to catch your breath
Colorado transition the puck up the ice so quickly after winning possession.
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