Thursday, July 30, 2020

I Watched This Awkward Pandemic Exhibition Game: Canucks can’t ground the Jets




So we’re actually doing this, are we?

You have to give the NHL credit for getting games going seemingly without major incident. A few positive COVID-19 cases were reported back in Phase 1, but the NHL’s strategy seems to have worked: putting everyone in a bubble like Jake Gyllenhaal to create individualized hypoallergenic environments for each player, then sending them out on the ice like bubble soccer players.

Wait, that’s not what they did? The “bubbles” they’re talking about are just two quarantined areas in Toronto and Edmonton? Well, that’s way less fun.

After a training camp redux in Vancouver, Wednesday’s exhibition game against the Jets was a chance for the Canucks to get back up to game speed in a ridiculous hurry. Starting Sunday, they’ll face a five-game play-in series against the Wild. Win that series and they’re in the playoffs; lose and they have a 12.5% chance at the first overall pick, ceded to one of the play-in teams by the draft lottery.

It’s an absurd situation for an absurd time.

The results will matter against the Wild; this game was a lot more about testing the waters, albeit by jumping in with a massive cannonball rather than dipping a toe in. There’s no time to fiddle with line combinations, experiment with power play set ups, or mess with defence pairings. The Canucks need to play like a playoff team immediately.

Expecting playoff-caliber hockey after a near five-month layoff is a tough ask, and we certainly didn’t get it on Wednesday. But absence makes the heart grow fonder and any Canucks hockey is good hockey after that much time without it. It was a balm to the soul when I watched this game.

  • Jake Virtanen was a healthy scratch for this game, which seems like a pretty big deal, since teams were allowed to dress 13 forwards for the exhibition games. It seems he’s fallen behind Zack MacEwen on the depth chart after a rough training camp where he got cussed out by his captain. Considering Virtanen was on-pace for 21 goals and 43 points, it seems pretty telling of how Travis Green views him away from the puck (or possibly away from the rink).
  • During the first intermission, in front of an extremely wobbly cell phone camera, Jim Benning downplayed the Virtanen scratch: “Micheal Ferland came back, he’s had a real good camp. Travis wanted to take a look at him on that line tonight with Gaudette and Roussel, so I don’t think it’s anything more than that.”
  • Meanwhile, Green told a different story after the game when asked why Virtanen was scratched: “I just went with the lineup that I thought gave us the best chance to win.” That seems like a bit of a disconnect between coaching and management, or at least a lack of communication.
  • The biggest issue for Virtanen is that he doesn’t kill penalties. While he has the wheels to be an effective penalty killer, he has shown little in-zone defensive aptitude — his defensive awareness is nearly non-existent. With Micheal Ferland and Antoine Roussel healthy again and skating on the third line, that means Virtanen is competing with go-to penalty killers Brandon Sutter and Tyler Motte for a spot on the fourth line.
  • The lack of fans in the arena wasn’t a big deal overall, though there were some issues with the piped-in arena noise, such as noticeable delays between goals and a roar from the “crowd.” What was more odd was the lack of creativity in terms of the broadcast. With no fans, that opens up all sorts of possibilities for innovative camera angles, but the only new angle appeared to be a bizarre overhead shot from the rafters that wouldn’t have been affected by fans in the arena. Perhaps they’re saving all the new camera angles for the actual play-ins/playoffs or perhaps the games are going to be presented the exact same way they're always presented, because novelty is death when it comes to the NHL.
  • As for the game itself, it was...fine. It was hockey. Hockey is good, most of the time.
  • The Canucks got strong performances from their top two lines, which will be key against the Wild. Elias Pettersson was predictably their best player — his line with J.T. Miller and Tyler Toffoli hemmed the Jets in during the first period in particular, creating some great chances. Brock Boeser looked like a new man, slicing through the Jets’ defence to get a game-high 7 shot attempts, meshing well with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson, which is good, because this is no time for bad meshing.
  • The bottom-six was more messy than meshy. The third line with Roussel, Gaudette, and Ferland got the Canucks' lone goal, but struggled at times. The fourth line wasn’t good. At all. Brandon Sutter looked slow, Jay Beagle got stuck in his own zone too much, and Tyler Motte couldn’t get his linemates going despite some good work on the forecheck. That could be a problem against the Wild, who have a more balanced forward group.
  • The Canucks controlled the first period, but couldn’t get the puck past Connor Hellebuyck, who showed no rust whatsoever after so many months off the ice. Fortunately, Hellebuyck only plays for the Jets and the Wild goaltenders are significantly less Vezina-esque. Unfortunately, Tucker Poolman scored the opening goal against the flow, his wrist shot finding a way through both traffic and Jacob Markstrom.
  • Markstrom, incidentally, was just fine. He certainly wasn’t at fault on the second Jets goal, when Tyler Myers and Oscar Fantenberg got their signals crossed and gave up a 2-on-1, with Myers sliding into oblivion on an ineffective shot block and Fantenberg coasting on the backcheck. Patrik Laine sent a hard shot off Markstrom’s far pad and Nikolaj Ehlers sent the rebound home, which was a lot easier to do while on the ice, unlike the guy the Canucks picked ahead of him back in 2014.
  • The 3-0 goal didn’t look good for Tanner Pearson, who gave the puck away at his own blue line then took too long to identify the danger represented by Dmitry Kulikov in front. Jack Roslovic found Kulikov a lot faster than Pearson and he had a clear shot from between the hashmarks to beat Markstrom. We’ll blame rust.
  • Honestly, the Canucks created tons of chances, but Hellebuyck was a hella-brick wall all game. He got a piece of an Elias Pettersson bullet on the power play in the first period, turning it over the bar. Brock Boeser was stoned on a breakaway, as was Bo Horvat as he cut through the Jets’ defence. The Canucks peppered Hellebuyck with 38 shots, but could only beat him once on a garbage goal in front. 
  • That goal came courtesy of Roussel, who got in hard on the forecheck to win the puck, then Gaudette took over with a great cutback along the endboards to create space against Josh Morrissey — heaven knows he’s miserable now. Gaudette’s wraparound attempt was stopped, but Roussel poked the loose puck through Hellebuyck’s legs. Confusingly, that led to the same piped-in cheers from the non-existent fans, breaking kayfabe, since this was supposedly a Jets home game.
  • Olli Juolevi was in the game as the Canucks’ seventh defenceman, playing a largely uneventful 6:37 in ice time. He made one decent stretch pass, stepped up in the neutral zone a couple times to break up plays, and recovered well after a defensive zone giveaway to eliminate the Jets’ chance that came as a result. While it’s unlikely to bump him up the lineup to play ahead of Fantenberg, it was a solid showing for a prospect that has hit some major roadblocks in his development.


5 comments:

  1. PitB back in action? Its like Christmas in July!

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  2. Great to have you back, I've missed IWTG almost as much as the games

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  3. Is there anything we can do to help PitB get back to print?

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  4. Damn I missed PitB! Thanks. And who do we need to yell at to get you your job back? The fans need this.

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