On Wednesday, Canucks fans were giddy with excitement after Elias Pettersson almost single-handedly won a game against the Ottawa Senators, capping off his first career hat trick with the overtime game winner. It was a fantastic finale to a day when he was named to the All-Star Game and scored his 20th goal of the season, earning two big contract bonuses in the process.
Less than 24 hours later, those same fans were in despair watching Pettersson lie face down on the ice in obvious distress after getting taken down behind the play. He eventually made his way off the ice and down the tunnel to the locker room, after which the Canucks reported he would not return to the game.
It was a total gut punch, a classic “This is why we can’t have nice things” moment for a fanbase all-too-familiar with such moments. Just when Canucks fans were feeling the most positive about their team and their shining young star, their legs were cut out from under them and all the positivity was exsanguinated out of Vancouver.
What was most frustrating was how needless the injury was. Hockey players accept the risk of injury in the game — it comes part and parcel with the nature of the sport — but ideally those injuries would be limited to when they’re actually playing hockey.
Pettersson didn’t have the puck. He wasn’t even in the offensive zone in a dangerous area of the ice from which he might score at any moment. He was in the defensive zone, skating up the ice when Jesperi Kotkaniemi hooked him from behind, then wrapped his arm around him and hauled him to the ice.
None of that had anything to do with hockey. It was textbook hooking, interference, and holding, but no penalty was called on the play.
Pettersson’s knee twisted as his skate was caught underneath Kotkaniemi’s leg. He reached for his right knee as he lay on the ice, then seemed to think better of trying to bend his body that way and lay still.
Travis Green suggested that the injury might not be too serious, but it’s difficult to tell when it comes to knees, the most complex joints in the human body. It could be a minor sprain or it could be a torn ACL. A torn ACL might not even cause a significant amount of pain, but simply feel numb and weak, and it can take time for the swelling to occur. They may not know the extent of the damage until they do an MRI.
Hopefully Pettersson's injury is minor and he’ll be saved by the pliability of youth. That's the lone hope I could cling to after I watched this game.
- Let me be clear: I don’t think Kotkaniemi meant to injure Pettersson. Sure, the 18-year-old Finn had half-jokingly said, “I hate Swedes,” back in November when he first faced Pettersson, but Kotkaniemi was just employing the same tactics everyone has used to try to slow down the Canucks’ superstar rookie: hook, hack, hold, and, when all else fails, tackle. It was cheap, stupid, and unnecessary, but I don’t think he was trying to hurt him.
- That doesn't mean that the play was, as Brandon Sutter said during the second intermission, “innocent.” This wasn’t an innocent play with an unfortunate result; it was an illegal play with an unfortunate result. Kotkaniemi had no business hooking, interfering, and holding Pettersson as he tried to skate up ice.
- Along with Sutter, Travis Green was quick to dismiss the play as purely accidental, saying, “It’s not a dirty play at all.” Thing is, there’s a wide gap between intent to injure and “Whoops, what a terrible accident.”
- My biggest issue with the play, apart from it being so far away from the puck, is that Kotkaniemi didn’t just hook Pettersson and collide with him, but grabbed him as he fell, dragging Pettersson down on top of him. You can see Kotkaniemi still has a fistful of Pettersson’s jersey when they’re on the ice. Without that hold, Pettersson likely doesn’t fall as awkwardly and twist his knee. That’s not innocent. That’s not an accident.
- During the second intermission, John Shannon was dismissive of the play that caused Pettersson’s injury, and made the point that hockey is a dangerous sport with the common expression, “It’s not ballet.” I hate that expression for many reasons, but it’s particularly ill-used in this situation for one simple reason: ballet is dangerous and injuries are frequent and sometimes horrific. From ruptured achilles tendons and broken bones to permanently damaged feet from thousands of hours of dancing en pointe, ballet is not for the weak of heart or body. It would be nice if we could avoid denigrating one group of elite athletic performers to buttress another group just because the former sometimes wear leotards.
- With Pettersson injured, does the rest of the game even matter? For most of the game, the Canucks played like a team that had just gone to overtime the previous night. The Pettersson line with Brock Boeser and Sven Baertschi created some chances in the first period and Boeser finished the game with a whopping 14 shot attempts, but the bulk of the Canucks’ shots came from the outside, as their offensive creativity took a dive when Pettersson left the game.
- Carey Price picked up the shutout in his first game back from a recent injury. He was fantastic when he needed to be, particularly after a giveaway by Joel Armia gave Bo Horvat a great chance from the slot. Price came up with the glove save and that was as close as the Canucks would get until Brock Boeser rung the post on a third period power play.
- Jacob Markstrom was solid in the Canucks’ goal, stopping 25 of 27 shots. He made a highlight reel save on Max Domi on a 2-on-1 late in the third period. With Bo Horvat trying to get back to defend, Jonathan Drouin sent the pass to Domi at the back door, but Markstrom lunged across with the right pad to turn him aside, then Markus Granlund blocked a follow-up shot on the rebound to save a sure goal.
Jacob Markstrom stands tall, almost wall-like, and stops Max Domi from putting the puck through. Made a great save again. That puck wasn't migrating into his net. pic.twitter.com/LgSb0bl03C— J.D. Burke (@JDylanBurke) January 4, 2019
- Brandon Sutter returned to the lineup and wound up with some extra ice time after Pettersson’s injury, filling in for him on the power play. That’s a little like substituting unseasoned tofu for perfectly slow-cooked lamb in your shawarma, but it’s not Sutter’s fault that he’s not Pettersson.
- Jordie Benn opened the scoring with a rare goal, as his long wrist shot went upstairs faster than a teenager avoiding their parents. Markstrom was screened by Artturi Lehkonen in front and the puck might have taken a small deflection off Pettersson as he battled with Lehkonen.
- Montreal scored their second goal by reading a set play that has resulted in a couple Canucks goals this season. Off a faceoff won by Horvat, Boeser rotated up to the point. This has frequently confused opposing forwards, allowing him to get an open shot through traffic, but Drouin read the play perfectly, forcing a turnover. If Boeser were a defenceman, he likely would have recognized the danger and beat feet back into the neutral zone, but instead he let Drouin slip in behind him and Domi connected with Drouin for a breakaway. Drouin’s quick shot snuck under Markstrom’s blocker like a teenager with unsupervised internet access.
- Despite trying to recover from a two-goal deficit, the Canucks didn’t manage a single shot at 5-on-5 in the third period. They still got 11 shots, but they all came on the power play, thanks to some undisciplined play by the Canadiens, or after they pulled Markstrom for the extra attacker. Just one of their third period shots came from within 20 feet of the net.
- It didn’t help that one of the Canucks’ most creative playmakers was once again in the pressbox. Nikolay Goldobin sat for the second-straight game. Without their first and fourth-leading scorers, the Canucks’ skaters in the final minute, down by two goals, included Markus Granlund, Loui Eriksson, and Chris Tanev. I’m certainly not saying that Goldobin would have made all the difference, but it was a stark reminder of how little offensive depth there is in this Canucks lineup.