I Watched This Game: Canucks cruise to a higher altitude in Colorado

Canucks 5 - 1 Avalanche

Pass it to Bulis

There’s a phrase that crops up in sports with some regularity: “Why not us?”

It’s the rallying cry of the underdog, the team that no one believes in. No one, at least, other than the players in the room and the die hard fans that never count them out.

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It was the theme of the 2004 Boston Red Sox when they ended an 86-year long World Series drought and of the 2014 Seattle Seahawks when they won the first Superbowl in their franchise’s history. It was half of the slogan of the 1994-95 Orlando Magic — “Why not us? Why not now?” — when they made a magical run to the NBA Finals before falling just short of the championship.

You may question the “underdog” bonafides of a couple of those teams, but it’s the type of phrase that makes you feel like an underdog. It presents the impression that people are doubting you — that they’ve come up with several reasons “why not you” — and if there’s anything a hyper-competitive professional athlete loves, it’s proving doubters wrong.

At this point, you have to wonder if there aren’t a few players in the Canucks dressing room asking that question: “Why not us? Why can’t we make the playoffs? Someone’s going to win the Stanley Cup: why shouldn’t it be us?”

The more a team wins, the negative answers to the question “Why not us?” become fewer and further between. Sure, from the outside we can think of plenty of reasons why not the Canucks — they lack scoring depth, their defence is frequently a mess, and their goaltending is still relatively unproven — but confidence can cover over a multitude of sins and turn a mediocre team into an unexpected underdog success story.

The Canucks still have a long way to go, but you might start hearing, “Why not us?” with more regularity if they can pull out a few more wins like the one I saw when I watched this game.

  • The Canucks have taken to a counter-attacking strategy of late: bending but not breaking in the defensive zone, then striking quickly in transition. It hasn’t always worked out, but the Canucks were flying higher than the average resident of Denver or Vancouver in this game, creating a bunch of dangerous chances off the rush.
  • That strategy has no hope of working, however, unless your goaltender is razor sharp and Jacob Markstrom was like a finely-honed obsidian scalpel. He made 34 saves on 35 shots, with his best coming in the second period when he lunged across with his right pad to rob Tyson Barrie of what looked like a sure goal.
  • The Canucks opened the scoring on the counter-attack. Ben Hutton cleared a puck away from the front of the net and Brandon Sutter banked it up the boards, giving Antoine Roussel and Jake Virtanen a 2-on-1. Virtanen drove to the net and Roussel sent him a lovely backhand saucer pass to backhand past Semyon Varlamov. Like someone saying, “That’s a great picture: it doesn’t even look like you,” that goal was very backhanded.

 

 

  • It was a good night for the grind lines, particularly the third line of Roussel, Sutter, and Virtanen, but Tyler Motte was particularly noticeable. Shortly after Virtanen’s goal, he nailed Matt Calvert with a big open-ice check in the defensive zone, then created a breakaway for Sven Baertschi with his pressure at the point. He led the Canucks with four shots on goal and five hits.
  • It wasn’t a great night, however, for Josh Leivo. He, Horvat, and Baertschi struggled to move the puck up ice and the Canuck were out-hot 12-3 and out-attempted 23-4 with Leivo on the ice at 5-on-5. Essentially, Leivo spent most of the game in the Canucks’ end of the ice, which is the lame part of the ice; all the cool parties happen at the other end of the ice, where they have a couple kegs, bacon-wrapped steak skewers, and a positive corsi.
  • Brock Boeser made it a two-goal lead with arguably his best shot of the season. Elias Pettersson won the faceoff, then Boeser carried the puck into the middle of the ice, aided by some subtle interference by Nikolay Goldobin. Boeser looked pass, then suddenly fired the puck under the bar where the bartender keeps the baseball bat.

 

 

  • Pettersson’s only point of the game was the assist off the faceoff win, but his best move came later in the first period. He faked a pass, then drew the puck up between his own legs, creating a lane to the net. Then, as two Avalanche defencemen closed off that lane, Pettersson swung the puck back to Goldobin for a great scoring chance.

 

 

  • Oh yeah! Goldobin was playing! After sitting out as a healthy scratch for four-straight games and six of the last nine games, Goldobin was back in the lineup and playing with Pettersson and Boeser. He seemed to have taken the scratches to heart: he was diligent defensively, applied himself to puck battles, and made smarter choices with the puck.
  • Goldobin also brought the “Why not us?” attitude with him. Before the game, he said, “I don’t think a lot of people believe in us, but we have a good shot.” The Canucks will likely need Goldobin at the top of his game in order to take that shot.
  • The Canucks took a 3-0 lead in the second period thanks to a brief turn Bo Horvat took with Virtanen and Roussel. Horvat and Jay Beagle were both on the ice for a faceoff at the end of a penalty kill, then Beagle jumped off and Horvat remained. On a zone entry, Virtanen dumped the puck down low and Horvat settled the bouncing puck, then swung it out front for Roussel, who went over the blocker like Bobby Wagner.

 

 

  • It took a crazy tip in front of the net for the Avalanche to finally beat Markstrom and, even then, he nearly made the save. Nikita Zadorov’s point shot was likely going wide right, but Calvert managed to get his blade on the puck with just one hand on his stick, directing it off the top of Markstrom’s shoulder and in. Erik Gudbranson had Calvert pretty well tied up; when someone makes a deflection that nice, you just have to doff your cap to them. Calvert: consider my cap thoroughly doffed.
  • Motte got rewarded for his strong play with a goal, restoring the Canucks’ three-goal lead. Out of a puck battle in the Avalanche zone, Motte snagged the puck and rung it around the boards to Troy Stecher at the opposite point. Stecher sent a shot (or possibly a pass) to the net, where Motte made like a generous Uber customer and gave it a big tip.

 

 

  • There was a brief moment of concern early in the third period when Boeser tried to grab a Derrick Pouliot clearance out of mid-air with his right hand. He immediately hunched over and went to the bench, where he got medical attention. Thankfully, it didn’t seem too serious — possibly a bad bruise — because he didn’t miss a shift.
  • The Canucks put things in cruise control to a certain extent in the third period, content to ride out the three-goal lead. They didn’t entirely sit back — they were still aggressive in the neutral zone and stepped up offensively at times — but their counter-attack from earlier in the game wasn’t there any more.
  • To make up for the more moderate attack at even-strength, the Canucks finally got a couple power plays in the third period, after the refs let several seemingly obvious penalties go earlier in the game. Goldobin put the game away for good, finishing off a lovely Leivo cross-ice pass with authority, sending the puck just inside the post to make sure Varlamov had no chance to make the save.

 

 

  • It may have been a meaningless goal for the outcome of the game, but it wasn’t meaningless to Goldobin. You could tell how much it meant to him by the massive grin that sprouted on his face behind his chewed-up mouth guard. Goldobin may still be fourth on the Canucks in scoring despite all his scratches, but that was only his sixth goal of the season, as he sits on an 8.2% shooting percentage, well below his career average. With a little more confidence in his finishing ability, maybe he’ll be able to send a few more pucks into the net in the games to come.

 

 

 

 

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