Teams that are ready to be legitimate playoff contenders don’t go from competitive to nearly unwatchable when they lose one player. For an example, just look at the Canucks’ opponents on Saturday night: the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Leafs are currently second in the NHL, behind only the dominant Tampa Bay Lightning. After defeating the Canucks, they have a 27-12-2 record, and a plus-39 goal differential.
They’ve compiled this record even though Auston Matthews missed a month with a shoulder injury and William Nylander held out for the first 28 games of the season to negotiate a better contract. Matthews and Nylander were second and third on the Leafs in points last season, and Matthews was only second because he missed 20 games.
With both players out of the lineup, the Leafs still went 9-5-0 and scored 3.36 goals per game, which would still be good for 7th in the NHL right now.
The Canucks aren’t there yet. That should be obvious, but the emergence of Elias Pettersson as a superstar rookie and an incredible December from Jacob Markstrom had the Canucks storming into playoff contention, which led to, perhaps, an overabundance of optimism in Vancouver.
The difference that Pettersson makes to the Canucks is readily apparent. If anyone is an example of a strong-link player, it’s Pettersson, who makes everyone around him better. The Canucks have some other great players, like Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, but they simply don’t have the depth to absorb the loss of Pettersson and remain competitive.
To be fair, the Canucks were on the tail end of a six-game road trip, playing their third game in four nights. Even with Pettersson, the Canucks were going to be in tough against the Leafs. But all you have to do is look at how many goals the Canucks have scored in the last two games to see how badly they miss Pettersson. It’s been 120 minutes of hockey since the Canucks last scored a goal.
Fortunately, it looks like Pettersson’s injury isn’t as bad as many initially feared. An MRI revealed an MCL sprain that should only keep him out for one or two weeks. When he returns, he’s good enough that he might actually propel the Canucks to a wild card playoff spot. And that’s awesome, as long as the Canucks’ decision-makers keep these games without Pettersson in the back of their minds.
Because legitimate playoff contenders don’t go from competitive to nearly unwatchable when they lose one player. I watched this game.
- Pettersson wasn’t the only player out of the lineup; Josh Leivo missed his second game with back spasms and has been placed on the injured reserve. While Nikolay Goldobin might have drawn back into this game anyway after being a healthy scratch for two games, the two injured forwards made it a necessity.
- With Pettersson out, Goldobin and Brock Boeser were the most creative offensive players left in the Canucks lineup. So you would be forgiven if you had to suppress a shudder when you saw the two wingers lined up on opposite sides of Brandon Sutter early in the game. That’s nothing against Sutter; it’s just that his strengths lie at the other end of the ice and offence tends to die on his stick unless he’s on an odd-man rush.
- That line didn’t last long. Halfway through the first period, Travis Green decided to load up one line and put Goldobin and Boeser with Bo Horvat. It didn’t really work — after all, the Canucks got shut out by the Leafs’ third-string goaltender — but they were at least competitive. When Horvat was on the ice with Goldobin, shots on goal were 7-7 at 5-on-5; Horvat without Goldobin saw the shots go to 7-1 for the Leafs.
- The Canucks’ best chances in this game came on a power play that started late in the first period. Alex Edler set both chances up. As the first period ended, he faked a shot to give Horvat a shot at the back door, but Michael Hutchinson tracked it well and made the stop. Then, early in the second period, Edler gave Sven Baertschi a great chance, but Baertschi, sensing the David versus Goliath nature of the game, slinged the puck right between Hutchinson’s eyes for the mask save.
- Chris Tanev was at his best in this game, perhaps because he had to be with the relentless Toronto attack. He, Edler, and Goldobin were the only Canucks who weren’t on the ice for a goal against in this game and Tanev was full value for the even goal differential. He won puck battles down low, stole a goal from John Tavares by tipping away a back door pass with an open net, and, shockingly, showed separation speed and acceleration. We haven’t seen Tanev skate like that in a long time.
- Erik Gudbranson, on the other hand, had a bad day. Tanev wasn’t on the ice for any goals against; Gudbranson was on for all five. Some of that is just plain bad luck, but bad luck tends to be more of a factor when shot attempts are 26-to-9 for the other team when you’re on the ice.
- On the first goal, Gudbranson was simply out-worked by John Tavares. To be fair, on a good day Tavares could out-work James Brown. First, Gudbranson lost a puck battle behind the net to Tavares, then couldn’t budge him from the front of the net or tie up his stick as Tavares tipped in Morgan Rielly’s point shot.
- Gudbranson wasn’t at fault on the second goal, though; Derrick Pouliot was. Leafs rookie Trevor Moore blew past Pouliot like a Henry Rowengartner fastball, then snapped an unexpected shot five-hole on Jacob Markstrom, who got caught anticipating a pass on the 2-on-1.
- Pouliot and Gudbranson did manage to make a couple great plays while defending 2-on-1s later in the second period. Kasperi Kapanen tried to dance around Pouliot as he slid to the ice to take away the pass, but Pouliot reacted well and swept the puck off his stick. A few minutes later, Gudbranson made a sliding stop of his own to pick off a pass from Kapanen to Nazem Kadri.
- It just wasn’t Kapanen’s day. Jacob Markstrom made a stunning sequence of saves in the second period, stoning Kapanen on the rush, then stretching his right pad back to rob Igor Ozhiganov on the rebound, with Ben Hutton completing the sequence by tipping Patrick Marleau’s follow-up shot out of play with Markstrom down and out. As a result, Kapanen was one of only three Leafs players who wasn’t on the ice for a Leafs goal.
- Markstrom was brilliant in December - you might call him a Decemberist in his sporting life — but, while he wasn’t his December self in this game, it was hard to blame him. In fact, he kept the Canucks in the game, stopping all 12 shots he faced in the second period, before Auston Matthews broke through in the third and put the game out of reach.
- Matthews busted a five-game goal-scoring “slump” with a wraparound goal early in the third. Boeser lost a puck battle along the boards to Andreas Johnsson and everything went higgledy-piggledy in the Canucks’ zone. Matthews was all alone, as Horvat had started up the ice expecting a breakout from Boeser. Hutton closed quickly to prevent him from barging to the front of the net, but no one saw the potential wraparound coming, giving Matthews enough room to come around the post and slide the puck five-hole.
- One of the biggest issues for Gudbranson isn’t a particularly visible one most of the time: his zone exits are rarely with puck possession. 15 seconds before the Matthews goal, Gudbranson had the puck in the defensive zone with plenty of time and space. He sent a cross-ice pass that was two feet in the air by the time it got to Baertschi. The Leafs immediately took possession, sent it back up the ice for a clean zone entry on Gudbranson’s side, and scored.
- I’m not trying to pick on Gudbranson, just trying to illustrate one of the reasons his on-ice goal differential is the worst in the NHL among defencemen who have played at least 500 minutes, and the only two defencemen with a worse corsi percentage are Cody Ceci and Maxime Lajoie, who are playing way too many minutes for the trainwreck that is the Ottawa Senators. This isn't an isolated incident for Gudbranson, who frequently focuses more on just getting the puck out than moving it up ice. A turnover by getting the puck out of the defensive zone isn’t as dangerous as a turnover inside the defensive zone, but it still gives the opposition more time with the puck and more chances to create offence.
- His partner, Ben Hutton, isn’t fully off the hook, however. He took too long to move the puck on the fourth goal and the Leafs’ forecheck hunted him down like a pair of velociraptors. Andreas Johnsson pressured Hutton behind the net and he spun off him to go the other way. Unfortunately, that’s where “Clever Girl” Matthews was lying in wait. He stole the puck and moved it to Johnsson, who sniped a bad angle shot over Markstrom’s left shoulder on the short side.
- The fifth goal was pure luck, though 32 seconds of uninterrupted puck possession in the offensive zone tends to create more opportunities for luck to kick in. Ozhiganov’s pass to a wide open Matthews at the back door never made it, instead banking into the net off Gudbranson’s skate. Every Canuck on the ice simultaneously looked skyward, as if thinking, “I knew it was one of those games, but I didn’t know it was one of those games.”
- I wish this article had a little more positivity, but it’s hard to muster after that kind of game. I will say that Jake Virtanen had a solid game, leading the Canucks in shot attempts and corsi percentage. Four of his nine shot attempts were on goal and he moved the puck effectively: one cross-ice pass to Goldobin for a zone entry in the second period was particularly nice. Maybe it’s a bad sign when you have to turn to some nice passes for some positivity, but here we are.
It’s small plays like this that show Virtanen’s growth this year. Instead of floating a long range shot on a one and done rush, JV defers to Baertschi who ensures #Canucks establish o-zone time. Good changes in how Virtanen is using his teammates. pic.twitter.com/AalwhEdwub— Harman Dayal (@harmandayal2) January 6, 2019
- Ooh, here’s some positivity: three Canucks prospects won medals at the World Juniors. Toni Utunen took home gold with Finland, while Quinn Hughes and Tyler Madden settled for silver. Not a bad tournament for all three, even if Hughes’ point totals didn’t reflect how well he played.