Everything over the last few months has been leading to this. All the time spent in the gym over the summer, the bag skates in training camp, the many practices, and all the preseason games that make no difference in the standings, all of it has finally paid off.
Finally, after such a long wait, hockey players can once again say, “Big two points tonight.”
They’ve been itching to say it for so long that it was becoming painful. The battle to prevent themselves from uttering that phrase too soon, before two points were actually big, must have been excruciating. Truly, that was the most difficult part of the off-season.
The truth is that the two points are indeed big. The size of the two points doesn’t change between opening night and the final game of the regular season, even if the two points in that final game are seemingly the difference between making the playoffs or not. Getting more big two points earlier in the season would also be the difference between making the playoffs or not.
In a way, then, two points are never big in the NHL. They’re always the same size. Man, if I can’t believe the interview clichés of hockey players, what can I believe?
In any case, it’s good to have meaningful hockey back, where two points, big or not, are once again on the line. Unfortunately, the Canucks did not get those two points when I watched this game.
- After spending weeks evaluating players in the preseason, it feels like you have to start from scratch in the regular season: “Okay, how do they perform in a real game?” Overall, the Canucks were okay. Not good, definitely not great, but not terrible either. They’re like going to Olive Garden: familiar and reliable, but not necessarily a winner.
- The Canucks largely outplayed the Oilers, out-shooting them 33 to 22, which would have felt serendipitous if they had won the game, like the spirits of the Sedins, who dominated the Oilers throughout their careers, were blessing the 50th Anniversary Season. Alas, no serendipity here.
- Jay Beagle’s instincts are all defensive, and those instincts just get heightened on the penalty kill. Never has that been more clearly displayed than when he made a great play in the neutral zone to steal the puck from Leon Draisaitl, then immediately dumped the puck into the Oilers zone, only for the camera to pan across and reveal that the Oilers were changing and he could have had a clear path to the net for a breakaway. It never even occurred to him. No offence, but he has no offence.
- With the lack of top-six wingers in Edmonton, Zack Kassian is getting a chance to prove he belongs on one of the top two lines, and he nailed his audition like Alejandro Aranda. He outworked Alex Edler physically and got an assist on the opening goal, scored the Oilers’ second goal, and provided a crucial bit of distraction on their third goal. Kassian might be sticking around the Oilers’ top-six for a while.
- The Canucks’ defensive coverage was a complete clustercuss on the first goal. Tyler Myers chased Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the boards when he didn’t have the puck, Edler got pushed behind Jacob Markstrom by Kassian, and Bo Horvat left Leon “50 Goals” Draisaitl to reach for the puck after Markstrom gave up an awful rebound. Draisaitl got a head start on his next 50 after Kassian neatly tapped the puck to him at the side of the net.
- One of the most intriguing aspects of the game was watching the quick adaptation of Quinn Hughes. He had a strong game in the offensive zone, but he struggled to contain zone entries on the wing, particularly from Draisaitl, who manhandled Hughes on one entry in the first period, unceremoniously tossing him to the ice like an Oilers jersey.
- You could see Hughes making adjustments within the same game, however, to the point that in the third period when Draisaitl tried to beat Hughes, the rookie defenceman kept his feet moving, kept a better gap, and stripped Draisaitl of the puck. Like Princess Jasmine, he’s a fast learner.
- Perhaps the most notable aspect of Hughes' game: he played over 23 minutes. Green and defence coach Nolan Baumgartner didn't hesitate to put Hughes on the ice with his partner Chris Tanev, to the point that Hughes was the Canucks skater that played the most minutes against Connor McDavid. That is stunning for a 19-year-old rookie defenceman in his first game of the season.
- He may have had a lot of ice time, but the Canucks need to figure out how to get Hughes on the ice with Elias Pettersson a lot more. The two created some magic when they got on the ice together, making it even harder to stomach the fact that Hughes was on the second power play unit instead of the first. As much as I respect Alex Edler, the Canucks shouldn’t wait to get Hughes on that top unit.
- That remains true even though Edler scored the Canucks’ first goal of the season just one second after a power play expired. Brock Boeser put the puck right in Edler’s wheelhouse and he drilled a hard and low shot that ramped up Kris Russell’s leg and over Mike Smith’s shoulder. It’s not the first time a leg has caused someone to go under a bar.
- One key to Edler’s goal: Connor McDavid’s helmet popped off in a puck battle with Brandon Sutter and the new rule this year requires players to either go directly to the bench if their helmet comes off or immediately put it back on. Fussing with his helmet took McDavid momentarily out of the play, so he wasn’t in Edler’s shooting lane. Of course, the alternative would be laying out to block an Edler shot without a helmet, so let’s just say the new rule did its job protecting a player.
- Despite the ugly rebound on the first goal and the other two goals against, Jacob Markstrom was remarkable in this game, keeping the Canucks close with some magnificent saves, particularly in the second period. He was distributing pad saves like Arunachalam Muruganantham. His .864 save percentage won’t do wonders for his numbers, but his performance will do wonders for the confidence of his teammates.
- The Canucks got out-scored in the third period, but it was still their best period of the game. They created numerous chances off passes from below the goal line, which are some of the most dangerous passes in hockey, because they’re difficult for a goaltender to track. If the Canucks can keep creating those chances this season, they’ll be a more dangerous team.
- It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the Canucks took a 2-1 lead off one of the least-dangerous shots in hockey: a point shot. After Tyler Myers kept in a clearing attempt, the Oilers got caught running around and the Canucks took advantage. Hughes faked a shot, then set up Myers for the one-timer. The puck gingerly touched the tip of Tanner Pearson’s stick, which deflected it ever so slightly between Smith’s legs.
- That tip counted as one of Pearson’s whopping 11 shots on goal. That’s a stunning amount and reflective of how thoroughly his line with Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller outplayed their competition. That’s particularly impressive when you consider the Oilers forward they faced the most was Connor McDavid. Shot attempts were 9-1 for the Canucks when Horvat was on the ice against McDavid at 5-on-5.
- The Canucks seemed to completely lose sight of Kassian on the 2-2 goal, which is somewhat unforgivable given the traffic-cone orange of the Oilers’ jerseys. To be fair, the Canucks were outnumbered in transition: Pearson was late getting to the bench for a line change because his stick was stolen out of his hand by Smith, who literally grabbed the stick with his blocker. This is, of course, allowed in the rule book under Rule 88.1: You Can Do Whatever You Want When The Refs Aren’t Looking.
- The game-winning goal was scored on a pretty egregious error by Sutter. After a long shift in the defensive zone, Sutter got the puck with plenty of time, so much time that a couple of his teammates started to the bench for a line change. Unfortunately, that’s when he tried to force a pass up the boards to Loui Eriksson, which was easily picked off by Matt Benning. He relayed the puck via Draisaitl to McDavid and the best player in the world went to work.
- McDavid is exceptional at splitting defencemen, but he had an even easier job of it this time as Chris Tanev was already cheating towards the bench anticipating a line change and Hughes took a moment to recognize the danger as he kept an eye on Kassian to his left. To Hughes’s credit, he got his stick on the puck as he recovered to check McDavid, but the Oilers' star maintained control and roofed it over Markstrom’s blocker.
- For those Canucks fans that want to see head coach Travis Green treat his veterans the same as his young players, you’ll be glad to know that Sutter didn’t have another shift after McDavid’s goal. Sure, it was just a little over five minutes and the Canucks were pushing to tie the game, but even Jay Beagle’s fourth line got another shift.
- The Canucks pushed hard to tie the game and looked dangerous with Markstrom pulled for the extra attacker, but like a tourist without a WiFi password, they just couldn’t find the net. Alex Edler came closest, hitting the crossbar and going out of play with 1.4 seconds left; like Hamlet’s latter option, it was not to be.