Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
The Stanchies: The Vancouver Canucks are the best team in the NHL heading into the All-Star break
1 month ago
The Vancouver Canucks are the best team in the NHL heading into the 2023-24 All-Star Break.
Imagine reading that opening line at this time last season.
Do you know what happened this time last season?
The Canucks were coming off an embarrassing 6-1 defeat to the Seattle Kraken, a defeat that prompted new head coach Rick Tocchet to suggest needing “10 practices” to address the team’s baffling lack of structure.
How did they respond on January 27th, 2023? Why, by defeating the worst team in the NHL by points-percentage by a score of 5-2, of course!
That team, by the way? The Columbus Blue Jackets! Who have since risen from being the worst team in the NHL by points percentage to the fifth-worst team in the NHL by points percentage!
Exactly one year ago, these two teams were engaged in a tankathon battle of the bottomfeeders for the best odds of drafting Conor Bedard.
Right now, the NHL is all “Maple Leafs this, Edmonton Oilers win streak that.” Where’s the love for the little franchise that could, Vancouver, who went from one of the worst on and off-ice seasons in franchise history to one of the best on and off-ice seasons in franchise history in just a calendar year?
Well, tonight’s game required its own in-game turnaround. Following a period of utter domination, the Canucks hit snooze for the second period, requiring a heroic third-period comeback effort to secure their title as the best NHL team heading into the All-Star Break.
Sorry to repeat myself, but I still can’t believe I wrote a Stanchies January 27th last year for a Canucks versus the Blue Jackets game titled “The great tankathon battle.” Now I’m writing a Stanchies for a January 27th Canucks versus Blue Jackets game titled, “The Vancouver Canucks are the best team in the NHL heading into the All-Star Break.”
Let’s see how this one shook out.
Best lineup available
Did I mention that the Vancouver Canucks are the best team in the NHL heading into the All-Star Break?
Most boringest domination ever
Donning their black skate alternates, the Canucks and Blue Jackets engaged in what can be charitably described as very phoned-in hockey. I mean, I don’t blame them. It was the last game before a ten-game break following the NHL All-Star game, so, understandably, the guys weren’t exactly engaged.
There were spots of exciting hockey — all thanks to your Vancouver Canucks — but this one played out every bit like the second-best team in the NHL by points and points percentage taking on the fourth-worst team in the NHL by points percentage, fifth by total points.
Corolla Garland sparked the Canucks’ best chance of the period with a centring pass to Teddy Blueger at the net front.
Nils Höglander wheeled below the goal line to set up Noah Juulsen for a one-timer off Elvis Merzlikins’ right post.
The Blue Jackets generated their looks off the rush, but struggled to find shots on Thatcher Demko’s net.
Following a commercial break, Quinn Hughes took control of the game in the offensive zone, wheeling around the pressure of Kirill Marchenko for a backhander toward the slot. Against any other team, Hughes’ innocuous pass wouldn’t even be GIF-worthy. However, against the Blue Jackets, Hughes’ slo-pitch to the net front PDO’d its way to Conor Garland’s stick, almost leading to the night’s first goal.
A near-identical sequence saw the puck PDO its way out to Pius Suter, only for Merzlikins to deflect Suter’s shot wide of the net with his outstretched blocker hand.
The Canucks looked early and often for rebounds and were consistently on the winning end of 50/50 battles to follow up with dangerous chances. Fifteen minutes into the period, the Canucks had outshot the Blue Jackets 10-2, out-attempting by a more-than three-to-one margin (24 to 7).
A “whoopsy” saw Nils Höglander accidentally pass the puck to Adam Fantilli inside the d-zone, giving the rookie forward a turning wrister on Demko in the dying minutes of the period.
After 20 minutes, the Blue Jackets had four shots on goal.
It was one of the Canucks’ most dominant two-way periods of the season, and yet it somehow resulted in zero goals.
But that was okay, because the Vancouver Canucks ended the game as the best team in the NHL heading into the All-Star Break.
Best “What else is on?”
While the Canucks threw everything but the kitchen sink at their opponent to try and open the scoring, the listless Abbotsford Canucks leaned on Vasily Podkolzin to spark some life against the Oilers’ affiliate Bakersfield.
After scrapping with Raphael Lavoie, Podkolzin would add a power play goal to equalize the game at one apiece.
It’s been a difficult season for the 22-year-old Russian winger. After opening his season with seven points in six games, Podkolzin was sidelined with a concussion for two weeks after being thrown to the ice by the Colorado Eagles’ Keaton Middleton. Since then, Podkolzin has struggled with consistency, registering just 15 points in his last 26 games played.
We admire him for tossing the gloves against a much larger opponent in a tie game five minutes into the first period, especially given his concussion history in this season alone.
Vasily Podkolzin might not be getting time on the penalty kill in Abbotsford, but he’s positioned himself well for a call-up to play games for the best team in the NHL coming out of the All-Star Break.
Speaking of physicality!
Sorry, enough of the Abbotsford talk. But Podkolzin’s first-period fight and power play goal was infinitely more interesting than the Canucks’ inability to crack the defences of the fifth-worst team in hockey.
Sensing his fellow Russians’ willingness to take a hit to make a play, Nikita Zadorov stepped up on Jack Roslovic inside the neutral zone, bodying the centre to the ice to steal the puck and kickstart another shift of utter domination for Vancouver’s first-line of Miller, Boeser, and Suter.
Worst Academy Award for Best PDO
Dedicated to continuing the dive/no-dive debate that began in the club’s overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues, Elias Pettersson sold a Dmitri Voronkov high-stick with a head-flick worthy of a Razzie.
I have no doubt Voronkov’s stick clipped Pettersson’s bucket. And yes, any player who sees a carbon fibre twig coming up toward their eyeball will instinctively throw their head back. Still, the acting job on the flick and the fall were a bit too “Anne Hathaway in everything she’s been in since Les Miserables,” when “Anne Hathaway in everything she was in before Les Miserables” would have sufficed.
The power play opportunity then gave way to the most “Canuck outcome” imaginable when the Blue Jackets scored twice in two minutes on just their second and third shots of the period.
Once shorthanded, off a breakaway goal from Alexandre Texier, off a giveaway at the blue line from Pettersson:
The second, one minute after the expiry of the Voronkov penalty, off a shot from Sean Kuraly.
Rick Tocchet was critical of Pettersson for not moving his feet following the Blues game. On both goals, the Canucks were guilty of losing possession and sitting back on their heels.
For Texier’s power play tally, the Canucks were late to react to Pettersson’s giveaway, and Pettersson, too, was guilty of being slow on the retreat after his errant pass.
On Kuraly’s goal, the Canucks were collectively guilty of sitting back and watching Justin Danforth waltz toward the half wall to collect Alex Texier’s deflected shot before dropping back to Texier behind Demko’s net for the setup to Kuraly. Ian Cole recognizes the lack of action from the Canucks, and starts to move his feet below the goal line, but it’s way too late.
The Canucks held an 11 to 4-shot advantage after the opening 20 minutes. Following their “power” play opportunity and a penalty kill, thanks to a Nils Höglander hooking penalty, the shot lead had evaporated.
Mercifully, Brock Boeser remembered the Canucks were better than this and b-lined it toward the goal to lift a cross-ice pass from J.T. Miller over Merzlikins’ glove side.
It felt like the Canucks had spent 35 minutes trying to score off crash-bang rebounds and fancy passing plays below the hashmarks. Ironically, it was a simple rush play through the middle that finally broke the Blue Jackets’ defences.
Respect to Pius Suter for recognizing the opening when Jake Bean inexplicably leapt into the neutral zone, leaving Miller and Boeser all alone at the Jackets’ blue line. With Andrew Peeke playing high in the zone, it was just a matter of Boeser hitting the afterburners through the middle of the ice to give Miller the redirect opportunity.
You could see the sigh of relief on Miller’s face when he realized the referees couldn’t possibly call this one back for goaltender interference.
Worst second period ever
Two minutes after Boeser’s goal sparked some life in a lifeless Rogers Arena, Jake Bean absolved himself on the Boeser goal gaffe by scoring the Jackets’ third goal of the period.
The shift time graphic? Not great!
Miller getting his pocket picked by Yegor Chinakhov? Not great!
Neither Miller nor Filip Hronek taking the body on Jake Bean, allowing him to dangle through the middle of the ice to make it 3-1? Yikes, really not great!
Zadorov kicking out Chinakhov’s feet seconds later to give the Blue Jackets a power play opportunity? NOT GREAT, BOB!
Kirill Marchenko scoring on the power play to make it 4-1 less than a minute later?
Somewhere in Vancouver, Wyatt is laughing his ass off, knowing he escaped having to write about the Canucks’ second-period effort against the Blue Jackets on Saturday night.
A shorthanded goal, a power play goal, and two at 5-on-5 in a single period.
Luckily for the lotto line, they’d mount an improbable comeback to finish the game as the best team in the NHL heading into the All-Star Break.
Best “I never doubted them for a minute.”
In the dying seconds of the middle frame, Sam Lafferty drew a slashing penalty to give the Canucks a power play opportunity to start the final period.
Though their evenings had been collectively terrible at 5-on-5 after that opening period of domination, Miller and Pettersson connected late on the power play to put the Canucks within spitting distance of the Blue Jackets.
Merzlikins was rattled off the goal sequence, specifically with his defenceman, Ivan Provorov, who body-blocked Merzlkinis from getting his body in position to defend Pettersson’s piss-missile of a wrist shot.
Shortly after, Miller drove down the left wing, drawing a hooking penalty against Voronkov, opening the door for Boeser’s second goal of the game.
The highlight of the goal was Quinn Hughes’ fake pass to Miller from the blue line to open space for a shot on Merzlikins through the middle of the ice. Parked at the front of the net, Boeser got a late tip to squeak the puck through his five-hole, halving the Jackets’ lead.
At that point, the wheels completely fell off the Blue Jackets when Conor Garland drew a slashing penalty against Boone Jenner to give the Canucks a third straight power play in the first five minutes of the final period.
That’s just what happens, though, when teams face the best team in the NHL heading into the All-Star Break.
Best 30th goal ever
The start of the Canucks’ third power play might be my favourite sequence from the entire game. I’ll get to Boeser’s 30th goal to cement the hat-trick. But first, how this power play started.
After Miller won the faceoff back to the blue line to Hughes, the Canucks’ stud d-man went cross-ice to Pettersson for a monstrous one-timer off of Merzlikins’ pads. Hounding for that game-tying goal, Boeser charged onto the loose rebound, hooking the puck to the slot for Miller, who adjusted his angle for a shot attempt.
Rogers Arena went buck on the almost game-tying goal.
It was wild because they cheered louder for Pettersson’s one-timer than for Boeser’s hat-trick.
It was almost sheer disbelief for the fans in the arena. A third-period comeback in the first five minutes, all on the power play, and two from Brock Boeser to secure his first 30-goal season in his career.
It was beautiful stuff from the best team in the NHL heading into the All-Star Break.
Worst game management/best response
Past the midway point of the period, the refs held Ian Cole in the box for what appeared to be a five-minute major for boarding Columbus’ Justin Danforth.
Following several minutes of deliberation with Cole sitting behind the referees inside the penalty box, a Shyamalanian twist revealed that the deliberation was for Tylers Myers’ elbowing of Sean Kuraly.
Myers was assessed a game misconduct, handing the Blue Jackets a five-minute power play.
No doubt, it was a clear elbow from Myers on Kuraly, but the awkward review period and the change of who was being assessed for a five-minute major made the entire situation very bizarre—fitting, given how this game shook out over the final two periods, to be fair.
Down one of their premiere penalty-killing defencemen, the Canucks killed off the major penalty as if they were the team on the power play. Ilya Mikheyev generated several shorthanded rush chances for himself.
Teddy Blueger generated a chip and chase chance for himself, as did Pius Suter, and Nils Åman gave the Canucks an offensive zone faceoff late in the power play to complete the penalty kill.
It was a full team effort from the Canucks to keep the game tied at 4-apiece. Across five minutes, the Blue Jackets mustered just a single shot on Demko.
Upon the return to 5-on-5, the Canucks played with a chip on their shoulder. Noah Juulsen was throwing his usual crushing hits, as was Zadorov, and even Elias Pettersson was throwing his weight around.
The gutsy comeback effort guaranteed that the Canucks would finish with just a single regulation loss on their January record.
Unreal stuff from the best team in the NHL heading into the All-Star Break.
*Jerry Seinfeld voice* Best “Who is this?”
The Canucks controlled the bulk of scoring chances in overtime, including this heater from Miller into Merzlikins’ glove.
And then, who else but Hughes, Pettersson, and Boeser to secure the comeback victory with the overtime winner?
After shaking his check down the left wing, Boeser hits Pettersson with the backhand feed. The PDO gods had their hands on this one, bouncing the puck off EP40 and
Laughably, Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets stayed on the bench, thinking Pettersson had kicked the puck into the net.
If I gave up three goals in five minutes on the way to an overtime loss, I’d be looking for any excuse, too.
Alas, the goal was good, and the win secured Vancouver first place in the NHL ahead of a well-deserved All-Star break.
And for the nerds keeping track at home, that’s first by total points, points percentage, regulation wins, and goal differential.
In the NHL, Brock Boeser scored a hat trick to help secure the Canucks an overtime win.
In the AHL, Vasily Podkolzin scored a Gordie Howe Hat Trick to help secure the Abbotsford Canucks an overtime win.
Expanding on the weird Vancouver-team Saturday night symmetry:
Best stat about the best team in the NHL heading into the All-Star Break
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