Seven games into the season, the Vancouver Canucks are off to a 4-3-0 start—nothing to write home about, but better than most were expecting. Still, over the past week ,the fanbase is aflame with controversy about the team’s culture—its heart, its soul, its guts—or lack thereof. Few Canuck rosters in history have had their character called into question with the intensity of the 2018/19 edition, and it’s no real mystery why that is: his name is Michael Matheson.
Travis Green and his squad have given their reasons for failing to respond when Matheson tombstoned the illustrious Elias Pettersson into the ice, and they’re all fairly legitimate. They also do nothing to change the fact that the Canucks are returning from their road trip to a city that doesn’t believe that they’re willing to stick up for one another—or the franchise as a whole, for that matter. Fortunately, a Saturday matchup with the Boston Bruins offers the perfect opportunity for a serious statement about team culture, and it’s one the Canucks can’t afford not to take.
Boston Has A History Of Bringing Out The Worst In Vancouver
Though the conflict between the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks has admittedly simmered in recent seasons, at its peak it reached a level of hatred that few other NHL rivalries have attained. It’s also one that hasn’t been particularly kind to the Canuck fanbase. There’s a lot of emotion in a little bit of history when it comes to the Bruins, and it’s hard to argue that Boston doesn’t have a history of bringing out the worst in Vancouver—and we’re not just talking about the riot.
After all the Sedin punches, the Sami Salo lowbridges, and the invisible Stanley Cup rings, the Canucks franchise has never really responded to the ills done against them by the Bruins, and that’s just Brad Marchand. There have been a few cathartic moments over the years—recall Cody Hodgson’s bardown blast in “Game 8”—but even when Vancouver beats Boston on the scoreboard, the Bruins pummel them physically.
In fact, the abuse rained down upon the 2011 Canucks by Boston might just be the only thing in franchise history that has made the fanbase question the team’s character more than the Matheson incident, but no roster since then has really been equipped to even the score with the Big Bad Bruins. The times, however, are a-changin’.
The Big Bad Bruins Aren’t What They Used To Be
The Boston Bruins have been the bullies of the league for the last decade, thanks in large part to the fact that their captain is a seven-foot-tall radioactive monster. Zdeno Chara has been accompanied over the years by names like Milan Lucic, Shawn Thornton, Adam McQuaid, Nathan Horton, and a litany of other meat-and-potato types—to say nothing of the aforementioned Marchand—and the results haven’t been pretty when the Canucks have tried to engage them in a battle of physical wills. Just ask Dan Hamhuis. Simply put, the Canucks couldn’t beat the Bruins when the going got tough, and when it came to the Bruins, the going always got tough.
These days, however, the situation looks markedly different. Old Man Chara is the lone gunslinger left wearing the spoked “B,” with all his partners-in-penalties lost to either retirement or—even worse—Edmonton. Meanwhile, Jim Benning’s acquisition of grit has been much-maligned, but it’s still happened, and the Canucks are sporting hardcases like Antoine Roussel, Erik Gudbranson, and former Bruin Tim Schaller, along with physically-punishing presences like Jake Virtanen, Michael del Zotto, and Alex Edler. For the first time in what feels like forever, the Vancouver Canucks might just be tougher than the Boston Bruins—and proving it on Saturday would go a long way toward repairing their reputation as a team with no heart.
Cheapshots Don’t Help Anybody, But Playing The Bruins Hard Will Do Wonders For Team Culture—And A Traumatized Fanbase
Nobody in the Vancouver Canucks fanbase should be advocating for cheapshots or otherwise dirty play against the Boston Bruins—or any NHL franchise. As has been pointed out by this writer and others, Vancouverites have witnessed numerous examples of the gruesome potential of retaliatory vigilantism in hockey. The game has changed since 2011—even if Brad Marchand hasn’t—and nobody should be hoping for head injuries on either side. However, there are plenty of ways to make a physical statement that fall well within the bounds of the hockey code—and the NHL rulebook, of course.
In essence, the Canucks should look at Saturday’s matchup like it were a playoff game. The stakes, after all, are currently high in Vancouver. In yet another season that is sure to be filled with losing streaks and scoring slumps, the team needs the fanbase on their side more than ever. Many of those fans lost their faith in the team—and their reason to tune in—when Elias Pettersson’s assault went unrevenged. The team, the coaching staff, and the front office should be eager for a chance to redeem themselves in the eyes of their supporters, and what better opponent for a statement game than the Bruins?
The Canucks don’t need to hit anyone from behind, but they should be finishing every check with zeal. Play hard between the whistles, but don’t be afraid to do a little pushing and shoving after them, either. No suckerpunches necessary, facewashes welcome. You know—playoff hockey. Brad Marchand doesn’t need to be speared in the groin, but he does need to be crunched into the boards whenever possible. If fights occur because of the physical play—and they probably will—the ruffians on the Canucks are more than capable of handling whatever the Bruins have to offer.
In other words, it doesn’t really matter if the Canucks beat the Bruins on the scoreboard on Saturday, just like it didn’t really matter that they won the game against the Panthers after Pettersson was injured—at least, not in the eyes of the fanbase. A much more important victory can be gleaned from “beating ‘em in the alley,” as Conn Smythe used to say. In the long run—and the Canucks really should be looking at things in the long run—a win for team culture would be much more valuable than two points in a non-playoff season.