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I Watched This Game: Canucks snuff out the Flames to win Pacific Division

The Vancouver Canucks cruised to a 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames to clinch the Pacific Division title on Tuesday night.
Thatcher Demko and the Vancouver Canucks doused the Calgary Flames on Wednesday night to secure first in the Pacific Division.

The Vancouver Canucks are Pacific Division champions.

This wasn’t supposed to be in the cards for the Canucks this season. This was meant to be a season where they focused on just getting back into the playoffs to earn some postseason experience. Even president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford threw a major qualifier into his preseason optimism.

“With the changes that have been made, we have a playoff team if everything goes right,” said Rutherford. “Your goalie has to be good, your specialty teams have to be good, you can't get into a lot of injuries.”

A lot went right for the Canucks — not quite everything — but they ended up with more than just a playoff team. Instead, the Canucks were transformed into a contender.

It’s a change driven by the players and directed by the coaches. The team’s leadership core was clearly sick and tired of coming short of the playoffs year after year but needed strong direction. They got it from Rick Tocchet and his coaching staff, implementing a structure that shored up the team’s defensive issues while still giving his players room to generate offence.

The Canucks’ season-long gameplan was on display against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday night. They took an early lead, extended it, and then gave the opposing team absolutely nothing to work with to close out the game.

Like the rest of the season, it wasn’t perfect, but it worked.

“Honestly, I’m just happy we won the Pacific Division,” said Tocchet. “The guys did a hell of a job all year. Let’s face it, nobody really picked us to win the division, so you’ve got to give the players a lot of credit. This game wasn’t a Picasso but you’ve got to take the positive: we won the Pacific tonight.

“I’m really happy for the guys. It’s a big honour and the guys should enjoy it.”

For the players who have been through some tough times in recent seasons, there was something special about clinching the division. There was a positive feeling in the room — not overly jubilant, as they continued to maintain their business-like approach of never getting too high or too low, but the players were smiling, laughing, and joking easily with both each other and reporters. 

“We were excited for tonight: a chance to clinch the division,” said Tyler Myers. “It means a lot. I’ve said it a bunch lately but looking back from where we’ve come from, guys buried their heads, put the work in, and really bought into what we were trying to do. To get rewarded with the division tonight was pretty cool. We’re not satisfied, by any means, but it means something, for sure.”

I buried my head, put the work in, and really bought into what I was trying to do when I watched this game.

  • Thatcher Demko made his return to the Canucks net and didn’t miss a beat. Well, maybe he missed one or two beats, as he gave up a couple of uncharacteristic rebounds, but maybe he was just playing jazz — it’s not about the saves you make but the saves you don’t make, man. Really, Demko was about as locked in as you could hope for after five weeks out with an injury. If he saw the puck, he stopped it, making 39 saves on 40 shots, which is more shots than the Canucks typically like to give up.
  • “That was the plan: let him get a lot of work tonight,” said Tocchet with a completely straight face, then provoked laughter as he grinned and revealed, “I was joking. Like, nobody’s laughing at that one? I thought that was pretty funny. I was waiting for someone to crack a smile.”
  • As much as the Canucks gave up 40 shots, they still didn’t give up many chances. According to Natural Stat Trick, high-danger chances were 18-to-7 for the Canucks in all situations. The Canucks kept the Flames to the outside like they were an uninvited coven of vampires.
  • A Dakota Joshua penalty gave the Flames the chance to open the scoring on the power play. Instead, Tyler Myers caught the Flames off-guard by jumping up the right wing shorthanded. Call him a stealth giraffe, as no one noticed the largest player on the ice. The Flames might have thought that Myers was going for a line change but Teddy Blueger fired a cross-ice pass to send Myers in alone and he sniped a shot past Jacob Markstrom’s blocker.
  • “No, I was looking to go,” said Myers when asked if he was considering a line change. “I don’t know if he was faking it or saw me at the last second but it looked like he was going to dump it for a second, so I gave a yell to him and he made a nice pass.”
  • Myers’ goal was one of three to beat Markstrom past the blocker, so I asked if that was part of the pre-scout from his former goalie coach: “It wasn’t. Or maybe it was,” said Myers with a laugh. “Clarkie puts up a pre-scout but at times, for me, I don’t score a lot, so you’re just hoping it goes in.”
  • Ian Cole, incidentally, confirmed that attacking Markstrom’s blocker side was part of the pre-scout.
  • Just over a minute later, Elias Pettersson and his line picked apart the Flames for a pretty goal. It started with a gorgeous cross-ice pass by Ilya Mikheyev to Pettersson, who had space to load up a shot on the left side. But like the bearers of the 19 rings of power, Markstrom was deceived. As he hit the ice to stop the seemingly inevitable shot, Pettersson instead slipped a backdoor pass through to Nils Höglander for a tap-in goal. 
  • “Mikheyev made a great play,” said Pettersson. “I knew Högs was on the far post and I just had a feeling. Markstrom came out hard on me, so I made a pass and it went through.”
  • The Canucks made it 3-0 early in the second period. Myers broke up a play along the boards, then Conor Garland sprung Dakota Joshua and Elias Lindholm on a 2-on-1. With Lindholm driving wide to pull the defenceman away with his irresistible gravitational field, Joshua had all the room he needed to use his deceptive release to fire the puck past Markstrom’s blocker. 
  • Things got feisty late in the second period. It started with Nils Höglander throwing a solid hit on Brayden Pachal on the boards. It was a stiff check but it didn’t seem like anything egregious but Pachal evidently took exception, as he got into the face of Höglander shortly after.
  • Or, rather, Pachal tried to get into Höglander’s face, but was quickly stopped short by a crosscheck to his chest. One thing opposing teams need to know is that Höglander won’t hesitate to defend himself. Höglander was initially assessed a five-minute major, as Pachal’s head-snap made it look like a crosscheck to the face, but it was downgraded to a two-minute minor after a review.
  • “He kind of got me up high and I'm lucky he's kind of 5'3",” said Pachal after the game. “It would have got me in the face otherwise.”
  • In the ensuing madness, Conor Garland got the biggest cheer from the crowd, as the 5’8” winger grabbed hold of the 6’8” Adam Klapka and ripped him off of Filip Hronek, dragging him to the ice. That’s a size mismatch for the ages but Garland clowned the larger winger as surely as if he had shoved a pie crust full of shaving cream in his face.
  • As the play was reviewed, the scrum, continued verbally but it wasn’t so much a war of words as a slaughterhouse, with Filip Hronek as the chief butcher.
  • “You have holidays in two days,” said Hronek, which was cutting enough as it is, but then he added the finishing move: “I feel sorry for you.” There’s no coming back from that. When the least talkative player on the Canucks murders you in two sentences, you’re just dead.
  • Quinn Hughes added another highlight to his Norris Trophy reel early in the third period. Andrew Mangiapane sent a shot on net and Jonathan Huberdeau batted the rebound through Demko. As the puck skittered through the crease, Hughes got a piece of the puck to keep it from bouncing in off the post, then deftly pulled the puck off the line before Kevin Rooney could knock it in.
  • The Flames finally did solve Demko later in the period. Pachal sent a shot between Garland and Lindholm to beat a screened Demko. Like Shakespeare fans who died before 1595, Demko never had a chance to see the puck.
  • J.T. Miller restored the three-goal lead a few minutes later. Pius Suter broke up a Flames rush in the neutral zone with a well-timed pokecheck and Miller went in all alone, then fired the puck — say it with me now — past Markstrom’s blocker. 
  • Miller had one more grade-A scoring chance in the final minute. For that one chance, he defied the pre-scout and tried to beat Markstrom glove side and this time Markstrom made the save. You’ve got to trust Ian Clark, Miller, he knows what’s up.
  • The nasty edge to this game continued until the final minutes. Rasmus Andersson went after Höglander away from the play, putting him in a headlock from behind and then throwing him to the ice. Höglander didn’t take too kindly to this unprovoked aggression and quickly got the better of Andersson, climbing on top of the defenceman. He might have started raining down punches if the linesman hadn’t intervened.
  • Amid all of the feistiness away from the puck, Höglander had a great game with the puck. He scored a goal, yes, but his passing was sublime. He set up grade-A scoring chances for both Mikheyev and Joshua with some perfectly weighted feeds. Like Tony Stark, Höglander’s out there either creating or discovering new elements…of his game. 
  • The Canucks have won the Pacific but there’s still an outside shot for them to win the Western Conference. If the Dallas Stars lose in regulation to the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night, a win for the Canucks on Thursday could still tie them with the Stars at 111 points, with the Canucks holding the regulation wins tie-breaker. The question is, do the Canucks care about that or would they rather rest players for the playoffs?
  • “I’ll talk to the group, talk to the trainers and see who’s banged up — there’s a lot of factors involved,” said Tocchet. “We’re going to have to do some research and figure out the best way to handle this. You always want to win every game but there’s precautionary things too.”