The Toronto Maple Leafs were in Vancouver, so you know what that means: pointless arguments between Leafs and Canucks fans.
These arguments always seem odd, as they always come down to which fanbase is sadder. Is it the Canucks for never winning a Cup since they came into the league in 1970? Is it the Leafs for not winning a Cup since three years prior to that? Do Leafs fans get to be more sad because they were robbed of going to the Stanley Cup Final by an uncalled high stick or Canucks fans for losing a Stanley Cup because everyone got injured and a journeyman goaltender turned into Dominik Hasek for a season?
This season, the argument has turned to who’s doing a better job rebuilding and I have to admit I’m confused. When did Canucks fans decide it was time to start dunking on the Leafs when it comes to rebuilding the right way?
Sure, the Leafs have had a tumultuous 2019-20 season. It was preceded by contentious contract negotiations between the team and star forward Mitch Marner, whose exorbitant contract, when added to the hefty contracts of Auston Matthews and John Tavares, put the Leafs in a cap crunch.
Then came the November losing streak which led to the firing of Mike Babcock, swiftly followed by revelations of psychological mind games that Babcock played that have been described as abusive. It’s been, to put it lightly, a mess in the centre of the universe.
Here’s the thing: Canucks fans aren’t in a position to judge.
The Leafs came into Vancouver in 21st place in the NHL, six points back of the playoffs. The Canucks, however, are also sitting outside the playoff picture and were just two points ahead of the Leafs overall heading into the game. After the game, they have the exact same number of points.
In addition, the Leafs have actually made the playoffs in three-straight seasons, even if they’ve been knocked out in the first round each time. Can Canucks fans please just wait until the Canucks actually make the playoffs before declaring that they’ve rebuilt the right way? Otherwise, all you’re doing is adding to the sadness.
Speaking of sadness, I watched this game.
- A lot of the animosity Canucks fans feel towards the Leafs can be attributed to the way the league caters to Toronto’s needs. To whit, this was the first time since 2006 that the Canucks have hosted the Leafs in Vancouver at 7:00 pm, instead of an Eastern Time Zone-friendly 4:00 pm. That meant even if the Leafs won this game, Canucks fans would at least get the satisfaction of knowing Leafs fans got less sleep.
- Either someone was having fun with the Canucks lines or Sportsnet had a weird glitch, as the reported lines under the score bug were all messed up. The other possibility is that Travis Green got really crazy with the line blender.
- It looks like the lines were connecting names with numbers from the past, then inexplicably sticking in Jordan Subban whenever it got confused. Hence you get Zack Kassian for #9 and Yannik Weber for #6 on Elias Pettersson’s wing, Radim Vrbata for #17 with Bo Horvat, but Tanner Pearson is the only #70 in Canucks history, so it put in Subban instead. We get the return of Frank Corrado (#26) and Ryan Stanton (#18), and then an all-Subban fourth line.
- The Canucks had a strong game overall, pouring on the offensive pressure and out-shooting the Leafs 39-26. The only trouble was that they couldn’t get the puck into dangerous areas in the first two periods. They seemed to focus on creating opportunities for tips with point shots, but too often Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen had a clear view of the puck and made an easy save.
- The most troubling development from this game was Micheal Ferland leaving early in the second period with an upper body injury. If it’s another concussion so soon after his last one, the Canucks might be best served to shut down Ferland for the season, in all honesty, particularly since there didn’t seem to be any contact to his head at any point. He did throw a big hit on Alex Kerfoot, but if that was the cause, Ferland really shouldn’t be playing right now.
- This was a bizarre game for Quinn Hughes: the Canucks utterly dominated territorially when he was on the ice at 5-on-5, out-attempting the Leafs 32-to-18 and out-shooting them 20-to-9. He was magic with the puck, making brilliant plays in the offensive zone to prolong possessions and keep the pressure on. There was just one issue: Hughes was on the ice for all four Leafs goals and a couple times it was his check that scored.
- That wasn’t the case on the first Leafs goal, though Hughes was on the ice. On that one, Tyler Myers left Auston Matthews alone in front as he expected a missed shot to carom to the other side of the goal. Jacob Markstrom, perhaps following Myers’ lead, also pushed across to the wrong side as John Tavares’ centring pass found Matthews and Matthews found the back of the net. Then, after successfully locating the back of the net, he put the puck there.
- On the 2-0 goal, however, Hughes engaged with Tavares along the boards, then got caught puck-watching instead of sticking with Tavares as he cut to the slot. That left Tavares in the clear to tip in Cody Ceci’s point shot. You could see Hughes’s frustration with himself as he slammed his stick on the ice; it was an illustration of how quickly a play can go sideways.
- The Canucks have struggled in the third period on some nights this season; that wasn’t the case this time. They out-shot the Leafs 16-8, created multiple breakaways, and Pettersson hit two crossbars. You could definitely argue that they deserved a better fate, but Andersen (and the crossbar) kept the Canucks at bay.
- Two of those breakaways belonged to Brock Boeser, who had a game-high 8 shots on goal, matching his career high. He had two games with 8 shots on goal last season, but in those games he combined for three goals and six points. In this game, he couldn’t buy a goal. It was like Andersen had declared his own micronation like the Principality of Hutt River and instituted his own currency, and only accepted that currency for buying goals, then closed down all the Currency Exchanges.
- Fortunately, Josh Leivo still had some Nation of Andersen currency left over from his time with the Leafs. Hughes sent a low wrist shot from the point that Horvat tipped on Andersen. Pearson kicked the rebound loose and Leivo pounced on it like a cat on a laser pointer, poking it into the net.
- That was Leivo’s fifth goal in his last five games, which should quiet his critics, of which there really shouldn’t be any in the first place.
- Then Leivo gave Horvat an opportunity to tie the game with yet another breakaway, but Andersen decided that he was only taking cheques, and all Horvat had was his debit card, so he couldn’t buy a goal either
- I can’t say this enough: Hughes had a really good game, creating all sorts of offensive magic, and he’s been very good defensively this season. That said, there’s no defending the way he play he made on the Leafs’ third goal. Literally, there was no defending.
- Hughes completely misread the play, moving to the man at the backdoor, who was already covered by Myers, which left Tavares, who had 47 goals last season, wide open. You can’t give a player like Tavares that kind of space, and he took advantage, sniping a shot past Markstrom’s blocker.
- At least the Canucks prevented a Tavares hat trick, with Pettersson making a sliding stop on an empty net bid, stacking the pads like Kirk McLean. It was a valiant effort that would have been lionized in Canucks folklore for years to come if the Canucks had managed a comeback. Alas, it will instead be just a footnote.
- Pettersson had a strong game, with four shots on goal, two crossbars, and one sad moment when he wanted a one-timer but Chris Tanev apparently didn’t see him and shot instead. We’ll call that a non-timer, as Pettersson still held his stick up in the air after Tanev took the shot as if not quite believing what just happened.
- J.T. Miller has been fantastic for the Canucks this season and was again in this game, but still makes some questionable decisions in the defensive zone at times. Coming out from behind the Canucks’ empty net, he got a little too cute with the puck and tried to chip it past Zach Hyman and skate around him. Hyman broke up the attempt, giving him an easy goal instead and squashing any hope of a last-minute comeback.
- Overall, it wasn’t a bad game. The Canucks needed to create more dangerous chances in the first two periods, but you don’t get much more dangerous than the breakaways they created in the third. They had a couple defensive breakdowns, but not every breakdown ends up with the puck in the back of your net like it did tonight. The Canucks can be buoyed by the positives, learn from the negatives, and move on.