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Photo Credit: © Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Vancouver Canucks at Buffalo Sabres Postgame Recap: Expansion Bowl Bounceback

The Warmup

Last Saturday, the Vancouver Canucks won their seventh game in a row against the New York Rangers and were pacing to soon overtake those teams ahead of them in the Pacific Division standings. A week and two games later, the outlook is now significantly less optimistic.

That’s a natural result of two downright demoralizing defeats in the Sunshine State this week – including a 9-2 shellacking courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning and a 5-2 spanking at the hands of the Florida Panthers that dropped them out of a playoff spot – and so the Canucks returned to the colder climate of Buffalo looking to right the ship. Of course, they’d also have to do battle with a dreaded 10AM PST start-time.

Vancouver’s expansion cousins, for their part, also came into the night on the heels of some bad hockey. Coming in directly after a 5-1 whooping from the St. Louis Blues and a string of seven losses in their last ten games, the Sabres had also dipped far below playoff contention – and thus would not be looking to hand the Canucks an easy moral victory.

Given what the #FloridaMen had done to his team in the last two matchups, one might have expected coach Travis Green to alter his lineup – but that didn’t prove to be the case. The roster cards for this matinee matchup, as provided by Jeff Paterson on Twitter, reflected just one change for the Canucks – Jordie Benn out and Oscar Fantenberg in:

The lines themselves remained exactly the same as they were throughout the seven-game winning streak, with Green presumably looking to recapture some of that magic and frame those two devastating losses as nothing more than bumps in the road.

Jacob Markstrom got the start in net, facing off with the struggling Carter Hutton at the other end of the ice.

Captain Bo Horvat, at the very least, looked entirely focused on leading his teammates to victory despite the early hour.

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1st Period

The Vancouver Canucks skated into this game with a couple of goals in mind, but one clearly took priority – namely, scoring the first one! With that in mind, the Bo Horvat line got set-up in the offensive zone right away and generated a chance in the slot for Loui Eriksson within the first 30 seconds, though his shot was blocked.

The newly-acquired Michael Frolik very nearly put the Sabres ahead a couple of minutes later with his own all-alone mid-slot opportunity, but he fanned on his shot. Later that same shift, it was Eriksson again almost poking a puck past Carter Hutton – and it was really starting to look like both teams would be trading chances this afternoon.

Speaking of that, a hook on Tyler Myers gave the Canucks the opening powerplay of the game, and their top unit – which had been reunited after a one-game remix – took to the ice and established pressure right away. Vancouver maintained possession for much of the man advantage and generated four shots, but they could not sneak any of them past Hutton.

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As the opening frame reached its first TV timeout, the shot-clock read 9-2 in favour of the Canucks, but then Jay Beagle gave the Sabres a powerplay of their own by grabbing Rasmus Dahlin as he skated up the ice.

The Buffalo man advantage quickly resulted in a cross-ice dish from Jack Eichel to Marcus Johansson, but Jacob Markstrom looked sharp in getting across to stop the subsequent one-timer. The Sabres continued to produce shots throughout the remainder of two minutes, but some well-timed blocks from penalty killers like Tim Schaller and Alex Edler prevented most of them from reaching Markstrom.

Even after Beagle exited the box, however, Buffalo kept pouring it on for a full minute without allowing the PKers to change – until inevitably a slapshot from Brandon Montour on the dot went through Chris Tanev’s legs and past Markstrom to make it 1-0 in favour of the home team. JT Miller picked up the secondary assist.

It might not have been a powerplay goal, but it was one that came as a direct result of a bad penalty – and the result was the Canucks once again being scored on first and already needing to mount a comeback in the early going.

The goal appeared to deflate the fragile Canucks, as they looked tentative and made several careless mistakes in the immediate aftermath. Quinn Hughes of all people over-skated a puck and created a chance for Kyle Okposo, though he also stymied it himself.

The tides turned with just under five minutes remaining in the period. After a nifty play by Elias Pettersson nearly resulted in a Brock Boeser tap-in, the Canucks swung the puck around to Troy Stecher on the half-wall. His low shot was skillfully tipped by Boeser – still hanging around in the slot – and past Hutton for Boeser’s second goal in as many games, and a 1-1 tie.

The players on the ice looked as relieved as they did celebratory.

A late period rush by former Sabre Tyler Myers came close to fooling Hutton, but both teams skated off after 20 minutes without any further damage – and with the shots reading 13-9 in favour of the visitors.

Intermission Highlight

Definitely Tyler Motte’s delightfully awkward car ride with John Garrett.

Also, receiving this bit of positive news about former Canuck Rob Davison, who suffered a scary medical incident on Friday:

2nd Period

The middle frame opened up, somewhat bizarrely, with Jay Beagle and the fourth line matching up – and trading chances – with Jack Eichel’s top unit. The two teams settled in from there, until an energetic shift from the third line ended in a close chance for Adam Gaudette and then a sizeable scrum after Jake Virtanen bumped Carter Hutton.

A couple shifts later, the Canucks’ second line charged into the zone with Quinn Hughes and captain Bo Horvat leading the way. Horvat attempted to pass across to Hughes, but the puck bounced off a Sabres defender and right back to him – giving Horvat an easy tap-in to a yawning cage for a 2-1 lead less than five minutes into the period.

Though Horvat had effectively performed a give-and-go with himself, the assists went to Tanner Pearson and Hughes.

Adam Gaudette could have doubled that lead moments later on a breakaway, but some effective backchecking from Jake McCabe prevented Gaudette from making the moves he wanted.

As the period went to its first TV timeout, Jay Beagle sent the momentum in the other direction with his second holding penalty of the game against Rasmus Dahlin – further raising the eyebrows of those already questioning Travis Green’s fourth line versus first line matchup.

And once again, the call was costly. Instead of being a key penalty killer, Beagle was just taking killer penalties.

As the Sabres smartly passed the puck around on the man advantage, it ended up on the stick of Sam Reinhart, who blasted a slapshot from the exact same spot Brandon Montour had scored from earlier – and received an identical result to tie the game at 2-2.

It was Reinhart’s fifth straight game scoring against his hometown Canucks.

Things went from bad to worse when the refs missed a call on Montour and then Elias Pettersson – who had been having a quiet period until then – tripped up Rasmus Asplund to put the Canucks down by a man again.

This time around, however, the Vancouver PK units looked a lot more competent, and it was Tyler Motte who earned the best chance of anyone – forcing a turnover at the blueline and ringing a shot off the crossbar behind Hutton. Moments later, the Sabres ended their own powerplay by taking a too many men penalty.

The Canucks took a while to establish possession in their truncated powerplay, and when they did they generated a handful of shots that all missed the net – bumping their man advantage slump to 0-12 over the past three games.

As the broadcast returned from a commercial break, the officials were on the phone to Toronto looking into whether or not Brock Boeser’s last shot before the timeout had gone into and through the Buffalo net – and that’s exactly what appeared to happen on at least one of Sportsnet’s camera angles.

That must have been an optical illusion, however, because other angles showed the puck clearly going over the net, and no goal was awarded.

Curiously, a linesman also examined the net itself, looking for a hole, which had the conspiracy hounds of #Canucks Twitter out in full force.

That lengthy and confused sequence set the tone for a fairly subdued set of final minutes, and the second intermission began with the teams somewhat improbably tied at two – though a late long-bomb from Hughes that rang off the post and an even later breakaway from Tyler Myers very nearly changed that.

Intermission Highlight

Travis Green’s reaction to the non-goal being turned into a meme:

3rd Period

The third opened, appropriately enough, with the drumbeats of the recently-passed Neil Peart echoing through the KeyBank Center in what had already been a raucous afternoon. And the Canucks came out determined to keep things a-rockin’.

Just over a minute in, Elias Pettersson forced a turnover at the Buffalo blueline that JT Miller picked up, skated in, and fired on net. Carter Hutton proved equal to the task, but he also threw out a rebound right back to Miller’s stick – making for another easy tap-in and the early 3-2 lead for the Canucks in the final frame.

It didn’t take long for controversy to reign again. A little over two minutes after the Canucks went ahead, Zemgus Girgensons tipped a Kyle Okposo shot down and past Jacob Markstrom with a shoulder-height deflection. Markstrom insisted that Girgenson’s stick had been above the crossbar, but video evidence didn’t back that notion up – and the goal stood to even it up at 3-3, the third tied score of the game.

After another stint of Buffalo pressure, Vancouver’s top line took to the ice and tilted the ice in the other direction. Brock Boeser nearly notched his second of the afternoon on a chance in close – and then moments later he had it after a nice give-and-go sequence with Chris Tanev that Boeser finished with a wrister over Hutton’s right shoulder. The Boeser/Tanev combo looked sharp on the play in drawing Hutton right out of his net.

The 4-3 lead was the Canucks’ third of the game and second of the period, less than seven minutes in, and it was certainly looking like we were in for a wild finish.

Two shifts later, Jake McCabe took a holding call on Tim Schaller – but before the Sabres could gain possession, the Canucks pushed the puck up the ice on the delayed penalty. Jake Virtanen streaked onto the ice and into the zone, took a nice feed from Motte, and fired it past Hutton for his 13th goal of the year – and the first two-goal lead of the afternoon at 5-3 for the Canucks. Adam Gaudette picked up the secondary assist.

Courteously, Virtanen waited until after 12PM PST to induce any #ShotgunJake celebrations.

As the period began to wind down, the task at hand for the Canucks was one that they’d struggled with thus far in 2019/20 – holding a lead later in the third.

Tanner Pearson didn’t help matters when he landed a sizeable elbow to the jaw of Marcus Johansson in a board battle, but he managed to get away without a penalty despite what appeared to be an injury to Johansson.

The visitors upped their discipline from there, however, and kept the Sabres largely to the outside over the next few minutes – forcing Buffalo to pull Hutton with more than three minutes remaining. And it would be Loui Eriksson – who else – to put it in the empty net with 2:12 left on the clock for a 6-3 lead, with Pearson and Bo Horvat picking up the free assists.

And that’s the way it would remain, with the game’s final minutes passing by without any further action of note.

The Wrap-Up

The Vancouver Canucks couldn’t have scripted a better bounceback game after two confidence-shattering losses in Florida. They doubled up on the Buffalo Sabres – who were themselves looking for a rebound effort – and managed to clamp down on a third period lead with cold, hard efficiency. Brock Boeser scored twice, which almost puts him back on pace for 30, and Jake Virtanen no doubt made it a fun afternoon for several fans back in British Columbia. Heck, even Loui Eriksson got one!

The Canucks battled through three tied scores to come out on top, and they looked good while doing so – even if the Sabres weren’t exactly an intimidating opponent and the Canucks were the beneficiaries of a couple lucky bounces.

The end result was still the same, and the alarm bells can finally be turned off back at #Canucks headquarters – for the time being, at least.

Fancy Stats At A Glance

Gameflow from Canucks at Buffalo January 11, 2020 (courtesy of naturalstattrick.com)

Heatmap from Canucks at Buffalo January 11, 2020 (courtesy of naturalstattrick.com)

Top Performers

Brock Boeser

Boeser scored two goals and made countless fans at home think he’d scored a third, production that more than qualifies him for this honour on its own. He also poured eight shots on goal, was on the ice for two other goals for, and drove play in the right direction all afternoon – leading the charge in a strong effort the Canucks desperately needed.

Bo Horvat

The captain notched a goal and an assist, lead forwards with 19:09 in ice-time, and won 58% of his faceoffs. He also picked up some of the defensive slack in a game where Jay Beagle noticeably struggled, playing a big role in the Canucks’ shutting down of the Sabres late in the third.

Adam Gaudette

Though Gaudette only picked up a single assist in this game, he was noticeable every time he hit the ice – consistently moving the puck in the right direction and setting up chances for himself and his linemates. Gaudette was in alone on Hutton twice and set-up Jake Virtanen on numerous occasions, lending energy to the rest of the lineup whenever he was out there.

Next Game

The Canucks are up early again tomorrow, even though their road trip is taking them back to the Western Conference. They’ll face off against the Minnesota Wild on Sunday, January 12 with a start-time of 1:00PM PST. Sportsnet Pacific will carry the broadcast.