When the Vancouver Canucks were one of the National Hockey League’s best teams – yes, it was once so – they often talked about “trap” games.
These were generally against weak, uninspiring opponents who fell inconveniently on the Canucks’ schedule like booby-traps in front of a disinterested Vancouver team coming off more difficult and emotional games.
The Canucks are now the trap, and it was the Dallas Stars who fell Sunday through the collapsible floor into the pit lined with pointy sticks or poisonous snakes or Kadashians or whatever you arm booby-traps with in 2018.
Don’t get us wrong: the Canucks earned their 6-0 matinee win in Dallas. They played one of their best road games of the season after one of their worst, Friday’s 4-1 loss in Carolina, where they managed to fall behind 1-0 after only 14 seconds despite winning the opening faceoff.
It was a shockingly different Canucks team that showed up in Texas, ending a four-game losing streak that had seen Vancouver lead for exactly zero minutes.
But the Stars would tell you they were an entirely different team, too, than the one that beat the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 in a shootout Friday in Dallas, 24 hours after the Stars went into Chicago and beat the Blackhawks 4-2.
The Stars were neither physically nor mentally ready for the Canucks, whose goalie, Jacob Markstrom, managed to stop the first shot of the game before his teammates rapid-fired 10 straight on the Stars net.
Minor-league callup Reid Boucher opened scoring on a wraparound at 2:11 and before the game was 14 minutes old Jake Virtanen and Thomas Vanek had scored pretty goals to make it 3-0.
Six goals matched the Canucks’ season high, as did their 41 shots. It was a rare stress-free game for a team that appeared to be buckling as it lost the first three games of a four-game trip. Now the Canucks head home to face the Florida Panthers on Wednesday. Maybe the Panthers will be thinking about someone else.
MARK MARKY’S WORDS
Disgusted with his team, as was every Canucks fan watching the debacle in Raleigh, Markstrom offered this assessment on Friday night: “I’m not good enough. And we have a lot of guys on our team who aren’t playing good enough, either, to be in this league. It’s embarrassing.”
As refreshingly honest as the statement was, that kind of NHL-code-violation (goalies are supposed to speak for themselves, not the players in front of them) can go either way.
The Canucks responded with one of their best road games of the year and Markstrom made 30 saves for the second shutout of his NHL career. He walked the walk – and some credit should go to coach Travis Green was allowing Markstrom to back up his strong talk.
We’re not sure what Markstrom’s future will be, whether he’ll build a long career as an NHL starter and be the kind of player Green’s talks about winning with if the Canucks continue to develop their wad of talented prospects and become a team that no longer lulls opponents into complacency.
But for where the Canucks are right now in their evolution, trying to build a culture as they rebuild their team, the fiery, combative Swede appears to be close to ideal. He embodies Green’s ideals about competing and doing whatever it takes to win. Like everyone on the Canucks, Markstrom just needs to win more often.
A NEW TAKE ON JAKE
It was revealing in his weekend Q&A feature with Sportsnet.ca that Green voluntarily brought up Jake Virtanen when asked about the coach’s handling of the Canucks’ young players this season. Virtanen has long been ground zero in the fierce debate around the Canucks about whether, with the team clearly not good enough to make the playoffs, Green should lower his standards about earning ice time and just let the erratic Virtanen play more in the hopes that this alone will somehow speed up his development.
But when you see the way Virtanen played Sunday — fast, direct, physically, purposefully — it’s more difficult to argue against the tough love that Green is showing him.
Virtanen scorched Stars forward Mattias Janmark and goalie Bishop for his breakaway goal that made it 2-0, was a handful around the Dallas net and registered three hits. His assist on Boucher’s second goal of the night gave Virtanen his second two-point game of the season, and he led the Canucks with a shots-for percentage of 65.5 per cent. And Virtanen accomplished all this in 11:20 of ice time, all but 13 seconds of it at even strength.
People are right to demand more — but not more ice time for Virtanen, but a bunch more games like this one where he maximizes the even-strength ice time he earns.
LIVING THE DREAM
Lots of Canucks played well in Dallas, but let’s devote a couple of paragraphs to Darren Archibald, the minor-league call-up who is getting a second chance with Vancouver four years after he logged his only 16 NHL games when John Tortorella was the coach.
Green brought in Archibald to provide some urgency and physical heft to the listing Canucks. One of the few Canucks who didn’t need to feel embarrassed in Carolina, Archibald was promoted Sunday to Brandon Sutter’s shutdown line. In 13:18 of ice time, Archibald had two shots, four hits, an assist on Erik Gudbranson’s goal and was second on the Canucks in driving possession with a shots-for percentage of 61.5.
But the most impressive moment was when, with the score 5-0, Archibald sacrificed his body to slide in front of John Klingberg’s slapshot. And the second most impressive is when he sacrificed his body to drive Greg Pateryn into the end boards late in third period after the Stars physical defenceman spent the game laying lumber on Canucks, including first-liners Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi.
If every Canuck played the last two months with the intensity with which Archibald played the last two games, Vancouver would be much closer to a playoff spot.
Things went so well for Vancouver on Sunday that we haven’t had to mention until now the palpable relief around Canucks Nation that Calder Trophy candidate Brock Boeser returned to the lineup after missing only one game with an injured hand. He had an assist in 20:37 of ice time. The Canucks won upon Boeser’s return and will be able to sell a few more tickets to Wednesday’s game because of him.
Boeser’s chase of Mathew Barzal in the rookie-of-the-year race might be the most compelling thing about the Canucks over the next eight weeks.