The Vancouver Canucks came into this game reeling a bit after giving up a shootout loss to Edmonton, in Edmonton. They entered tonight’s game with only two wins in January. Markstrom played well in Edmonton, but was out-dueled by the KHL import Mikko Koskinen, who has been better than most anticipated for Alberta’s probably-not-a-playoff team.
Speaking of reeling, the formerly hot Buffalo comes into tonight’s game having won only two of their past ten and only one so far this year. Prior to their win on Wednesday at Calgary, center and captain Jack Eichel hadn’t logged a point since December 27th at St. Louis.
For the Canucks, Thatcher Demko made his first start in Vancouver since March 31st of 2018. He’d end up getting his second straight win and the first star of the game as the Canucks took the win in a high-energy game against the Buffalo Sabres.
Travis Green was trying to set the tone when he had the Canucks open the game with Jay Beagle lined up against Jack Eichel.
Moments later, Loui Eriksson made a great stick lift a minute in to prevent a shot from Sabres player driving through the left circle.
On the Sabre’s next opportunity, Tage Thompson fired over the net from the high slot. Then, Buffalo narrowly missed a tip over the net by Johan Larsson on a feed from Okposo into the slot. As we’d see often tonight, Demko stood confident and tall, again.
Sabers winger and former St. Louis Blue Vladimir Sobotka had an on-the-rush, cross-royal-road pass to Jason Pominville blocked, but the puck ended up back on his stick. Demko stuffed him with a strong, athletic kick from the leg pad. This opportunity came off a broken play because the Canucks botched a change, leaving them with one defenseman on the ice. Buffalo was able to sustain extended offensive zone time, the Canucks allowed a couple of cross ice passes, which opened up their defensive structure. Ristolainen’s foot then redirected a Sobotka pass to Evan Rodrigues’ waiting stick after he worked off of Derrick Pouliot. Rodrigues scored on the backhand to put the Sabres up 1-0.
The Canucks were still waiting on their first shot as Buffalo had thoroughly out played Vancouver on their home ice in the first ten minutes. Josh Leivo would put the first tally on the shot clock for Vancouver as he worked one through traffic from the blue line with 10:30 to play.
The home team really started to get things going as Motte, Beagle and Eriksson exited their own zone with 8:50 to go. This line generated a decent opportunity from the point for Stecher and a close wraparound attempt from behind the net for Beagle. The top line was able to follow their lead, coming out on the next change, with Edler tying the game at 1-1 at the 12:12 mark of the first. Horvat worked the puck in low, behind the net. He pushed past Rasmus Ristolainen to make the backhand feed along the far boards to Edler and the Canucks got a bit of puck luck with the puck skating along the ice through a couple sets of skates and past Ullmark.
The Canucks would ride that momentum with Derrick Pouliot single-handedly bringing the puck into the offensive zone and playing keep away from Rasmus Ristolainen. When he beat the defenseman, Pouliot fed a slick backhand pass behind Ristolainen and Rodrigues to Sven Baertschi who was waiting below the hash marks, staring at a wide open net. Baertschi buried this shot, giving the Canucks a 2-1 lead they would carry into the second
Vancouver went to the power play shortly thereafter, with Demko heading to the bench for the extra man with 3:30 to play and Okposo heading off for hooking. Leivo saw some time on the top unit, heading out with Horvat, Baertschi, Boeser, and Edler. Unfortunately, it was nothing doing on the power play for the Canucks. Gudbranson would take a penalty reaching in on Eichel in the defensive zone to close out the period.
The Sabres opened the second with 1:43 left on the Gudbranson penalty. Demko made a sprawling save following a huge stop on a Jeff Skinner attempt on a rebound stemming from a botched a glove save. This happened a few times tonight for Demko and might be something to keep an eye on as he gets more playing time.
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) January 19, 2019
Demko wasn’t quite so lucky when Kyle Okposo snuck one through the five hole. The Canucks would block a couple of point shots before Larsson and Girgensons worked the puck below the net against Pouliot and Gudbranson. They kicked the puck out front to a waiting Okposo who picked his spot and beat Demko cleanly between the legs.
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) January 19, 2019
With 16:44 to go in the second, Travis Green rolled the Beagle line back out against the Eichel line in the Vancouver zone. Again, Beagle & Co. were able to work the puck out of their own end. Green was looking to get the Canucks going defensively as at this point they were being thoroughly out-chanced by the Sabres. Shots on goal were 16-5 in favour of Buffalo and attempts 35 – 24 favouring the road team.
At the 7:15 mark of the second, Jake Virtanen got into a bit of a shoving with Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart, leading to two minutes of 4-on-4 play. This after a beautiful save from Demko on a Skinner backhander, coming from a smooth pass from Reinhart following the controlled entry from Eichel.
On the 4-on-4, Hutton got a shot in on the rush, leading to Pilut and Boeser attempting to trakc it down in the corner. Pilut would make an inexplicable drop pass to the front of the net that would sail past his likely target Ristolainen, right to Horvat driving the net. Horvat made the feed to Boeser who still hadn’t been tracked down by Pilut, on the doorstep and suddenly it was 3-2 Canucks.
The roller coaster would continue with things shifting back a bit in Buffalo’s favour as they had a number of extended opportunities in the offensive zone, but with teams trading chances at both ends. The Buffalo edge would culminate in a Sam Reinhart backhand goal to tie things up, as Demko wasn’t able to react quickly enough on the cross-ice pass from Sheary. The former Penguin who rejoined his former AGM, Jason Botterill, in Buffalo this offseason, made a rocket pass across the ice after coming off the bench and gloving down a high feed from Eichel on the opposite blue line.
Demko and Ullmark each made a couple of big saves in the final five muntes to close out the period tied, 3-3. Demko showed a flash of confidence and composure making a dandy save with 1:28 to go when a shot from Dahlin on the left point skipped up off his leg pad and he calmly snagged it out of the air with his glove.
Josh Leivo got bumped up to the top line with Horvat and Boeser. That combination line generated a number of quality chances as time wound down in the second period.
Following the precedent of previous periods, again, Beagle squared up against the young Buffalo captain. Baertschi nearly scored in close on a pass from Horvat as he alternated shifts with Josh Leivo, appearing to get the majority of the shifts starting with a faceoff in the offensive zone. The Horvat line would get the lion’s share of the offensive zone starts as Travis Green and the Canucks looked to put away the Sabres in the third and avoid OT, which hasn’t been kind of late.
Demko over-committed on a Risolainen drive to the net, but Gudbranson would bail him out with a blocked shot as the goaltender attempted to make a diving save. The rookie goalie would make a huge stop on a Rodrigues one-timer coming off a drop-pass from Sobotka below the hash marks on the right circle. Demko followed that monster save up with a strong push back across the crease for a kick save on Sobotka, who picked up Rodrigues’ rebound and fired it at the net.
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) January 19, 2019
Demko’s mask came off on the sequence and again, Beagle would take the defensive zone face-off against the Eichel line, generating a 2-on-1 the other way. The Sabres would counter the spoiled odd-man rush, but the Canucks would shut them down. Tanev brought the puck out of their end and slid the puck to Leivo who fired it on net. The rebound worked its way to Beagle, who got the puck in behind the net to Leivo. Leivo played keep-away from Bogosian and dodged the poke check from Ullmark to get a backhand feed to Loui Eriksson. Eriksson buried the shot into a wide open net with Ullmark stuck in the VH, over-committed to the poke check.
Even though they were being out-chanced at a ratio of 6:4 and out-shot 28-20 at this point, the Canucks found themselves with a 4-3 lead and fourteen minutes left to play. Leivo nearly made it 5-3 on the breakaway after Pilut mis-played a bouncing puck with 7:55 to go. He went forehand-backhand, but Ullmark stuck with him and got the leg pad out there to make a save to keep the Sabres in it.
Green’s favorite matchup led to a Sabres power play when Beagle got his stick stuck in between EIchel’s skates 13:30 into the third period. Demko made a fantastic glove save on another Dahlin one-timer from the right circle. The Sabres would regroup with Eichel, then Dahlin, then Skinner bringing the puck through the middle of the ice, but again, Demko made an arm save on a Skinner backhander. The rookie goaltender did everything he could to help the Canucks’ special teams effort, even having a conveniently timed equipment issue that allowed the penalty killers to regroup. Beagle exited the box with 4:30 remaining in the third.
As Buffalo was mounting their final push, Troy Stecher blocked a point shot from Jason Pominville forcing Buffalo to regroup when the puck caromed out of the zone. The Sabres pulled Ullmark with 90 seconds to go. Buffalo worked the puck around the outside a number of times, but had trouble finding a clear shooting lane or putting a pass for a shot on the tape. They seemed to continually misfire the final pass in a number of sequences.
With forty-three seconds to go we ended the game how we started it, Beagle v. Eichel. Eichel won the draw but the puck trickled back into the Buffalo zone. Eichel tried to force a pass through to Dahlin, but it was broken up. Tanev recovered the puck and sat on it until time expired giving the Canucks a much needed “W”.
After a slow first ten minutes for Vancouver, the game felt like it could go either way. Both goaltenders made some remarkable saves in what proved to be a relatively wide-open game. Few watching would have been surprised to see the total score for either side climb above five goals.
As far as the advanced stats were concerned, the Canucks were out shot and out chanced, but I think the pace of the game tells the story better. I included a number of hockeyviz’s shot tide charts above to that effect. While the tide seemed to bounce back and forth an equal number of times, it does appear that Buffalo generated more from their opportunities. Demko’s play kept the Canucks in a game where they weren’t necessarily out-played, but were definitely onthe lower side of a tilted playing surface.
With as much as we saw Beagle out there against Eichel’s line, we surprisingly saw more of Josh Leivo than all but four other forwards. I’d wonder, given his recent play and the need for more depth scoring if the move to the Horvat line comes again Sunday.
Ultimately, Travis Green chose to shut down Buffalo’s top line and take his chances against the other three.We frequently saw him play the Horvat line off of and immediately after the Beagle line, which resulted in a number of chances for Vancouver’s top unit against tired or changing Buffalo players.This was a particularly interesting development because as recently as the 5-1 win against Florida (also at home) the Sutter line had been deployed in this role. We’ll see if this trend continues Sunday against Detroit.
Stecher had another strong game on Vancouver’s second defensive pair. It looks like Edler and Tanev drew the same matchup as the Beagle line and Stecher and Hutton drew everyone else. Pouliot got strapped to Gudbranson and those two spent the majority of their time out against Buffalo’s third line. They were on ice for two of the goals against. After not scoring for essentially an eternity, Ben Hutton nearly had a second goal in three games tonight. No surprise this breakout comes after the pairs were shuffled. He and Stecher have looked like a strong tandem these past three games.
If you want to know how Demko played, a Cmd+F “Demko” might tell you. He contributed immensely to Vancouver’s win tonight and, while he’d like to have the Okposo goal back I’d think, he showed off the excellent patience, athleticism, and puck tracking abilities that make him a top goaltending prospect at various points tonight. It’s certainly exciting to see the young goaltender excel in his new role.
Speaking of new roles, after a rough first two starts, the Swede shipped out to make room for the young gun has settled in with Ottawa. In his last four starts Nilsson is 3-1, with a .946 Sv%.
The Canucks will be taking on the Detroit Red Wings in a Sunday matinee before packing things in for the All-Star break. Detroit hasn’t played since last Tuesday and has won their last two games, albeit against the Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks.