Connor McDavid is the best hockey player on earth. He’s having a monstrous season, putting the Oilers on his back and willing them into a playoff position. He leads the league in points, is sixth in goals and is the biggest reason the Oilers have the best power play in the NHL right now.
The Canucks hard-matched 20-year-old Quinn Hughes against him on Monday night. It wasn’t even the first time.
In the first game of the season, the player that led the Canucks in ice time against McDavid at even-strength was Hughes, who was 19 at the time. Head coach Travis Green and defence coach Nolan Baumgartner placed a tremendous amount of trust in Hughes right from day one. But that was in a game where the Canucks were trying to mount a comeback; this was a game where they were defending a lead late in the third period.
Let’s just take a step back and recognize how remarkable that is. The Canucks’ rookie defenceman, who had played just 41 NHL games — half a season — heading into this game, was tasked with shutting down the best player in the world. More than that, Hughes is undersized by NHL standards and known primarily as an offensive defenceman and power play quarterback.
Old-school hockey men would either jump to the conclusion that he can’t play defence or refuse to put him in a position where he might prove that he could.
Instead, the Canucks threw him into the fire and it turned out Hughes was fireproof, which was a huge relief to everyone. Hughes played over 11 minutes against McDavid at even strength, including 1:32 of the final two minutes of the game, defending a one-goal lead. He and defence partner Chris Tanev — can’t forget about Tanev — played McDavid to a standstill, which is remarkably impressive when you consider how fast McDavid skates.
“I knew he was a great skater coming in, I mean, you can tell that from day one,” said Jay Beagle after the game. “But his play away from the park and his reads…it takes a long time for some guys to get that and he has it right away.”
Perhaps it’s that skating ability itself that made the matchup work. Few players in the league can skate with McDavid, but Hughes might be one of those few.
Then, to top it off, Hughes scored the game-winning goal on the power play. I hope you know how lucky you are to have Quinn Hughes, Vancouver. I took a moment to thank the Arizona Coyotes for drafting Barrett Hayton while I watched this game.
- Alex Edler was on the ice against Connor McDavid for just over two minutes at even-strength in this game; in that time, the Canucks out-scored the Oilers 3-0. Edler was like John Wick declaring, “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.”
- Okay, so Edler didn’t have much to do with any of those three goals apart from the empty net goal at the end of the game, but it was still nice to see him back in the lineup. He didn’t skip a beat, leading the Canucks in ice time in the first period, though they eased off on the minutes as the game progressed.
- Troy Stecher, who was paired with Edler, was certainly happy to see Edler back. “I’ve watched him my whole life,” said Stecher after the game, a disconcerting reminder that Stecher was just 12 years old when Edler made his Canucks debut.
- The Canucks’ fourth line split the shutdown duties with the Horvat line and played several shifts against McDavid entirely in the Oilers zone. In fact, the Oilers didn’t get a single shot attempt when Jay Beagle was on the ice against McDavid, which is pretty much ideal.
- “We just enjoy doing what we do,” said Tyler Motte. “Shutting down other teams top lines, playing hard minutes. It's a little bit of an ugly game at times, but we just enjoy doing it and we enjoy doing it together. We just try to have fun with it.”
- Better than shutting down McDavid, the fourth line even chipped in a goal. On an ever-rare offensive zone faceoff, Motte came into the circle when Beagle was tossed out. The puck ended up in skates off the faceoff and Motte dug it out and sent a quick shot on goal. Mikko Koskinen, who had drifted back in his crease after puck drop, left room on the glove side for Motte’s Clamato Caesar shot.
- “I’m probably going to hear about it now from them that they should get out there [for offensive zone faceoffs] more often,” joked Green after the game, though they were mainly out there in a defensive role: Horvat had just been on the power play and he knew the McDavid line would come out after the penalty was over.
- Seriously, Motte was fantastic in this game. He had a great forechecking sequence during a 4-on-4 late in the second, creating a turnover with pressure on Oscar Klefbom in the neutral zone, then battling with Adam “1-for-1” Larsson on the end boards and unceremoniously throwing him to the ice.
- It didn’t take long for the Oilers to respond to the 1-0 goal, as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins blazed past Brock Boeser in the neutral zone, took advantage of a loose gap from Oscar Fantenberg, then caught Tyler Myers playing too deep in the zone. Nugent-Hopkins cut across the slot and all Myers could do was attempt a pokecheck, but Nugent-Hopkins was unpokeable, keeping the puck and beating Jacob Markstrom past his blocker.
- You can’t give the Edmonton Oilers any time on the power play. They put on a free power play clinic early in the second period, which was awfully nice of them, except it resulted in the 2-1 goal, which means it wasn’t as “free” as advertised and was actually pretty costly. We should’ve known from the quotes around the word “free” on the poster.
- The Canucks were confident heading into the third period despite being down 2-1; they felt they were out-playing the Oilers and that a bounce would go their way. When that bounce came, it was for a player that was due a bounce, particularly on home ice: Bo Horvat. He went hard to the net as Tanner Pearson took a shot off the right wing and the rebound just happened to hit Horvat’s skate and go into the net.
- Was it a kick? “That's not a kicking motion, absolutely not, I was just stopping,” declared Horvat. “I'm a terrible soccer player, so I wouldn't have been able to kick that.”
- That was Horvat’s first goal on home ice all season and it seemed appropriate that it was a deflection. “I knew one was going to go off my ass or off some part of my body,” said Horvat, before joking that his ass would have been better, because then he could have celebrated the goal instead of being stuck waiting to find out if the goal would be overturned.
- This was my favourite moment of the game. It’s a little hard to see here, but from my vantage point it was clear as day: Hughes put his stick in Tanev’s back and tried to push him to the puck carrier. The sheer chutzpah for a rookie like Hughes to think, “I know where Tanev needs to be defensively and I’m going to literally push him into position,” is incredible.
- Tanev was having none of it. He didn’t budge. Heck, he probably thought it was an Oilers player trying to get position on him in front of the net.
- The Oilers may have the best power play in the league, but the Canucks aren’t far behind, and they showed why midway through the third period. The Oilers’ penalty kill seemed to underrate the threat of Hughes’ shot from the point, which is understandable when Elias Pettersson is lurking around the PetterZone, but Hughes showed why that was a mistake, unleashing a one-timer bomb that ripped past a Horvat screen to give the Canucks the 3-2 lead.
- The Canucks had a couple good chances to seal the game away late in the third: Jake Virtanen got robbed on a backdoor feed by J.T. Miller, while Jay Beagle lofted a breakaway chance over the net on a rolling puck. Finally, with the net empty, it was an unlikely hero who finished off the Oilers: Loui Eriksson.
- Edler made a nice play down low to pick up a loose puck and feed Pearson on the boards, then jumped up in the play to take Pearson’s return pass. He could have gone for the empty net himself, but Edler is as unselfish as they come. He instead gave the puck to Eriksson, who gently guided the puck in with a big grin on his face. Merry Christmas, Loui Eriksson. Merry Christmas.
- Finally, I had to ask Stecher about an odd moment in his stellar mic’d up video from earlier in December. At one point, he said from the bench, ““Nice pencil, Leivs!” which isn’t hockey slang that I’m familiar with. Stecher smirked and all he would say is, “A pencil is more of a chirp than anything, so I'll keep that one quiet.”