50 years ago, give or take a few months, the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres entered the NHL together. Now the two expansion cousins are both celebrating their 50th anniversary in fine fashion.
In some cases, that means literal fashion: the Canucks have their classic black skate jersey; the Sabres have their gorgeous golden anniversary jersey. Both teams are celebrating their 50th with theme nights celebrating each decade, though I have to admit I’m jealous of their poster series. The Canucks have also added more reasons to celebrate, like Alex Burrows being added to the Ring of Honour and the Sedins’ numbers being retired.
That covers off the ice; what about on the ice? The Sabres had more success early on, thanks to a spin of the wheel that gave them the first overall pick in 1970, which turned out to be Hall-of-Famer Gilbert Perreault, but neither team has won the big prize. The Canucks have come the closest, going to two Game 7s in the Stanley Cup Finals, while the Buffalo Sabres lost in Game 6 in each of their two trips to the Finals.
While the Sabres had the early success, the Canucks have certainly been the better team over the last couple decades. In recent years, however, they’ve been in the same place: outside the playoffs, in the draft lottery, hoping to win big.
The Sabres are a perfect example of how you can get high draft picks and then never go anywhere. For seven straight years, the Sabres have had a top-ten pick, including one first-overall pick in Rasmus Dahlin and two second-overall picks in Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.
This was supposed to be the season the Sabres turned the corner. They have a new coach in Ralph Krueger. They added defencemen Colin Miller and rookie Henri Jokiharju. Dahlin, with a year of experience under his belt, would surely take a step forward. At forward, they added Marcus Johnasson and rookie Victor Olofsson, who leads all rookies in scoring, though he’s currently out for 5-6 weeks after suffering a lower body injury last week.
Instead, the Sabres find themselves 12th in the Eastern Conference and 23rd in the NHL, seven points out of the playoffs and with a minus-15 goal differential. It’s largely because of the supporting cast — the Sabres have completely failed to build a team around their young stars, all while spending to the salary cap, though they’ll have more flexibility next season with a massive number of contracts coming off the books.
Whatever you may think of the job Jim Benning has done as GM of the Canucks, they at least appear to be better off than the Sabres. They were definitely better off than the Sabres when I watched this game.
- Coming off two embarrassing losses in Florida, the Canucks came out to start this game with something to prove. They had the first eight shots on goal of the game, dominating the opening minutes like Spaceball One. There was just one problem: they didn’t score.
- Instead, the Sabres opened the scoring, controlling play after a power play ended and moving the puck around to Brandon Montour, who blasted a slap shot through Chris Tanev’s legs and past Jacob Markstrom. The penalty killers were on the ice for the entire penalty kill, choosing not to change after an early stoppage on a Markstrom save or the clearance down the ice after it. They were on the ice for 2:39 by the time Buffalo scored and must have been dead tired.
- Just before the Canucks tied the game, they gained the zone in a clever way: Tanev intentionally iced the puck and Elias Pettersson beat the Sabres to the dump-in, centring to Brock Boeser between his legs. It was a combination of a couple great Sedin moves: the bank pass off the end boards and the between-the-legs touch pass. It’s just too bad the pass was a little behind Boeser and he couldn’t make like Daniel Sedin and go between his legs for the finish.
- Boeser still got the 1-1 goal a moment later. The puck came up to J.T. Miller at the point and he relayed to Troy Stecher, who jumped down the boards and sent a centring pass to Boeser in front. Boeser angled his stick perfectly, deflecting the puck behind his own back inside the far post. Like making a face mask out of oatmeal, sandalwood powder, and rose water, it was a beauty tip.
- Bo Horvat had a fantastic game. He was primarily matched up against Jack Eichel’s line and outplayed the Sabres superstar, keeping the puck primarily in the offensive zone when they were on the ice together. Horvat had 8 shot attempts, second only to Boeser, who had a monstrous game himself.
- Horvat gave the Canucks a 2-1 lead in the second period. Quinn Hughes rushed the puck up ice and dropped the puck to Tanner Pearson, then charged to the net. Pearson found Horvat cross-ice, but Lawrence Pilut broke up Horvat’s attempted pass to Hughes. That worked out just fine for Horvat: with Carter Hutton sliding out of position to play the pass, Horvat made like Simon Peter throwing the net on the other side of the boat and filled the empty net.
- Hughes had a great game as well. Paired primarily with Chris Tanev, but also with Tyler Myers at times, he was matched up against the Eichel line and dominated. Shots on goal were 7-1 for the Canucks when Hughes was on the ice against Eichel at 5-on-5. Overall, Hughes led the Canucks in corsi, as they out-attempted the Sabres 24-to-11 when he was on the ice at 5-on-5, out-shot them 16-to-5, and out-scored them 3-to-1. He’s so good, you guys.
- Speaking of, there is now confirmation: Hughes is going to the All-Star Game!
- The Sabres opened the scoring after a Jay Beagle holding penalty on Rasmus Dahlin and made it 2-2 on the power play after another Beagle-holding-Dahlin incident. Beagle was probably just trying to wrap up Dahlin in a comforting hug so he could tell him, “Don’t worry: someday you’ll leave Buffalo and go somewhere they truly appreciate you and value you for who you are,” but the refs kept ruining the heartwarming moment.
- The Sabres have a bottom-10 power play in the NHL this season, but you could have fooled me with the way they were moving the puck. They slung the puck around the point to Reinhart at the left faceoff circle for the one-timer. Like he had bought just one pizza for a family with three teenagers, Markstrom got just a piece.
- “Dual Axis” may have been the best optical illusion of 2019, but Brock Boeser provided an early candidate for best optical illusion of 2020. With 6:46 remaining in the second period, the referees reviewed a previous play to see if the puck went through the net on a Boeser shot, as it appeared to do so from the overhead angle. It took them four minutes to establish what was clear from another angle: the puck actually went two feet over the net.
- Travis Green, who evidently had only seen the overhead view, was apoplectic on the bench, with a reaction that surely won’t be used as a meme by Canucks fans for the rest of the season.
- The Lotto Line gave the Canucks a 3-2 lead early in the third period, as Pettersson knocked down Jake McCabe’s breakout pass and J.T. Miller took the puck and broke in on the right wing. His initial shot was stopped, but he jumped on the rebound like a cat on a toddler.
- After the excellently-named Zemgus Girgensons tipped in the 3-3 goal, the Canucks took the lead for good. A dominant shift by the Lotto Line led to some slick moves by Boeser. He cut off the boards past Reinhart, then sent a saucer pass to a pinching Chris Tanev. Hutton and a diving Jokiharju anticipated a shot from Tanev, but he slipped it back to Boeser, who wristed the puck into the vacated net.
- A minute later, the Canucks took a two-goal lead. On a delayed penalty, Adam Gaudette deked out Dahlin at the blue line to gain the zone, tipped the puck ahead to Tyler Motte, who sent a lovely backhand pass to Jake Virtanen at the back door, who snapped it home like he was a member of the Jets or the Sharks instead of the Canucks.
- The Canucks capped off the game with an empty netter. Horvat had first crack from centre ice, sending the puck off the outside of the post, but he won the puck back off Dahlin and centred for Loui Eriksson, who was wide open for the tap in. Dahlin threw his hands up in disgust that Eriksson was so wide open, but to be fair to the Sabres, Eriksson has made a habit of being invisible in a Canucks jersey.
- I'm hard on Eriksson, but the fact is, Horvat has 11 points in 9 games since Eriksson joined his line. As much as Eriksson doesn’t get many goals or assists, perhaps his two-way possession game is exactly what Horvat needs right now.
- Overall, it was a solid game for the Canucks. The top two lines were superb and Markstrom didn’t have to be spectacular to pick up the win. If the Canucks can keep that going over the next two games, they could still rescue this road trip.