‘I can’t remember a puck management issue in two games’: Nils Höglander is dominating the AHL playoffs with the Abbotsford Canucks
By Faber7 months ago
Through two tightly contested AHL playoff games, Nils Höglander is beginning to show that he belongs in the NHL.
Following two full seasons in the NHL, Höglander was assigned to the AHL in December. Upon arriving in Abbotsford, Höglander managed to put up 14 goals and 18 assists for 32 points in 45 regular season games. Those numbers are certainly not something to write home about and many likely simply saw the numbers and came to the conclusion that the 22-year-old winger simply wasn’t playing well in the AHL. Through his time with Abbotsford, there has been a focus on his decision-making with the puck and commitment to a structured style of play.
Höglander is somewhat of a wild child on the ice. He’s got some of the best puck-control skills in the world and he showcased that by scoring the goal of the year in the SHL in three consecutive seasons before he turned 20 years old.
It’s not like Höglander is looking for those fancy plays but he says that when he is playing with confidence, those types of situations present themselves to him on the ice. He’s got all the skill in the world and will obviously be back in the NHL soon but there needs to be a focus on development in his game. It’s not about building on his strengths right now — it’s about rounding out his weaknesses to an acceptable level to be an everyday NHL player.
We’ve seen growth in Höglander’s decision-making over the past four months. A big focus is his play with the puck around his own blue line. Höglander still tries to make some moves in the neutral zone and will lose possession from time to time, but it seems like he is buying into the thought process behind just simply getting the puck out of your own zone and then chasing the puck down. It’s not about making the perfect pass for this Abbotsford team, it’s more about how they shut down opponents’ offensive zone possessions.
Höglander has tightened up his defensive play and is now thriving offensively in the AHL playoffs, which began on Wednesday and saw the Abbotsford Canucks sweep the Bakersfield Condors on Friday night. It was a best-of-three series, and you may remember that those Condors swept the Canucks last year in the opening round of the AHL playoffs.
Abbotsford allowed two goals over the two wins and played extremely good defensive hockey in front of their goaltenders. Through the two games, the best line on the ice was the trio of Höglander, Max Sasson, and Kyle Rau.
“They’ve been excellent,” said head coach Jeremy Colliton after Friday night’s win. “We rolled [that line] because they were generating momentum, drawing penalties, [creating scoring] chances, and they were helping us flip the ice. [It was] a really good two-game performance. Nils was a big catalyst — winning races, strong on the puck, and winning battles. I can’t remember a puck management issue in two games, which is for as much as he had the puck, is pretty impressive. That’s a big reason why we won.”
Sasson is an NCAA signing who agreed on an amateur tryout with the Canucks and that made him eligible to play in the AHL playoffs. He joined the team for seven regular season games before the playoffs and has been a much-needed offensive centre in their top-six. Sasson played on one of the best lines in the NCAA this year and his ability to play with skilled players has him in a great spot with the Canucks.
“He’s awesome,” said Sasson about playing with Höglander. “He’s just so fun to be around. Off the ice and on the ice. He has so much energy. You know, he’s probably the fastest player I’ve played with. He’s so skilled and my job is to get him the puck and get him some space. And [then] he usually makes the right play.”
As for Rau, he is an AHL veteran who was a third-round pick in 2011 and has played in over 400 AHL games. He’s one of the few veterans on this team and leads with his strong two-way play and timely offensive bursts.
With his line playing well, Höglander has been dynamic.
In this goal, which was originally credited to Sasson and later changed to Höglander, he chips the puck around a defender in the neutral zone, then slips a check to continue on with his possession, and most importantly, he goes to the net hard and is quick onto a loose puck from his rebound. It’s a play that showcases how good Höglander can be and really gave him a chance to showcase his high-end puck-control skill.
Höglander has picked up a goal and an assist in both of Abbotsford’s playoff games.
His assist in the first game was a beautiful saucer pass through the slot and onto the stick of Rau, who sent it back to Sasson, who fired it into the back of the yawning cage.
Highlight reel assists have been consistent in Höglander’s play through two games. He made a gorgeous backdoor pass to Brady Keeper on Friday night and helped the defenceman pick up his first goal in 162 days.
During the postgame media availability, Höglander said that that back door play was something that he and Keeper had talked about and when Höglander saw Keeper sneaking down, he didn’t hesitate to fire a pass across the ice.
Höglander scored the series-winning goal on Friday night and put a cherry on top of what was a great two-game series for himself.
The Abbotsford Canucks now await their second-round opponent. It will depend on how Sunday’s one Pacific Division semifinal game goes.
If the Tucson Roadrunners win on Sunday, the Canucks will play the Colorado Eagles. If the Eagles win on Sunday, the Canucks will play the best team from the AHL regular season, the Calgary Wranglers.
No matter the case, the Canucks will begin on the road in a five-game series.
We’ve been damn impressed with Höglander’s play so far in the playoffs and he is by and far the leader of the offence right now for the Canucks. Nobody was as dominant as Höglander in the opening-round series and he will look to build on his game and show the management group that he can raise his play in high-pressure situations.
Abbotsford’s next game of the series is projected to begin on Wednesday, April 26 with the first home game at the Abbotsford Centre looking like either April 30th or May 1st.
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