All that highly structured, systems-based play that’s all the rage around the National Hockey League doesn’t appear to have gained a foothold in Buffalo, where the Sabres looked either positionally reckless or simply disorganized.
Vancouver outshot Buffalo 30-8 through 30 minutes and were ahead 35-8 at one stage before the Canucks, perhaps believing it must be some kind of trap, sat back in the third and defended their 3-2 lead. The Sabres, with one win in eight games to start the Phil Housley coaching era, had nine of their 22 shots in the final 20 minutes.
The Canucks finished with 40.
Let’s put the Canucks’ territorial domination in context. Few people believe Vancouver is a “good” team, and even fewer, like none, predict it’s a playoff team.
The Canucks are partway through a rebuild, transitioning away from Daniel and Henrik Sedin and waiting for prospects to develop. They were also playing for the second time in two nights, and the third time in four on their current five-game road trip. And still the Canucks dominated the Sabres for two periods like the Montreal Canadiens dominated the late 1970s.
They did not need to find the path of least resistance to the Sabres net. Instead, there was an eight-lane superhighway open without tolls carrying the Canucks to the Buffalo end.
“We found our energy and legs right away and then we were going,” centre Brandon Sutter said. “I don’t know what the shots were but we kind of managed to hem them in a bit five-on-five. We didn’t give up a whole lot either.”
Canucks defenceman Michael Del Zotto said: “We were assertive tonight. We had a lot of shifts (where) we were in their zone for 45 seconds or a minute. When you’re in there for sustained periods, you know it’s going to lead to scoring chances and, of course, goals.”
The two goals that gave the Canucks a bounce-back win after Thursday’s 6-3 loss in Boston arrived early in the second period.
Derek Dorsett banged in the rebound from Sutter’s shot to tie the game 2-2 on a short-handed 2-on-1 at 5:52 of the middle frame, which also put opposition penalty-killers ahead of the Sabres power play for the season. Buffalo has surrendered six short-handed goals and scored only five on the power play.
Another room-service rebound from goalie Chad Johnson, who could hardly be expected to also control the pucks at the rate he was required to stop them, allowed Daniel Sedin to score the winner at 8:10.
It followed nice passes by Henrik Sedin and Jake Virtanen and more inept defending by the Sabres, who played what looked like a 3-on-3 into a 2-on-1, then a quick breakaway for Daniel. The goal also preceded a marathon video review after a coach’s challenge for offside.
Virtanen had control of the puck, but did not have it on his stick, as he crossed the blue line. Housley was outraged the goal stood.
But the flow of traffic was entirely one way before the contentious goal, and continued to be so after it.
Officiating was way down the list of Sabres problems on Friday, just like it was down the list of Canucks issues on Thursday when a non-call for instigating against the Bruins gave Boston a five-minute power play instead of a three-minute advantage.
Considering the atrociousness of the Canucks’ penalty-killing Thursday, Vancouver would have been torched on a three-minute disadvantage just like they were on the five. And the Sabres were so awful Friday they’d have been beaten by the Canucks regardless of how the offside call went.
Dorsett, who underwent career-threatening neck surgery last season, added an empty-netter and now leads the Canucks with four goals in seven games. The 30-year-old had 44 goals in 495 games in his career before this season.
“Obviously, we wish our record was better than what it is right now because we feel we’ve played some decent hockey games where we could have won,” Dorsett said of the 3-3-1 Canucks. “From (lines) one to four, we’re pretty balanced. One of the things I’ve noticed with this group is guys are realizing what their roles are and everyone’s buying into it.”
Which meant, on Friday, Dorsett played on the first line and Danny and Hank Sedin on the fourth. Yes, times are changin’.
“We know we don’t have any superstars, any 100-point guys – unless Dorse keeps up his pace,” Sutter cracked. “We’re a team that’s going to have to rely on 12 forwards every night. That’s something we haven’t had the last few years.”
But they’ve always had goaltending, which remains an uncertainty for this season given neither Anders Nilsson nor Jacob Markstrom has been an NHL starter. Nilsson was hooked from the loss in Boston after allowing four goals on 17 shots. Markstrom was allowed to finish the win in Buffalo despite allowing two goals on five shots in a first period that saw Vancouver put 17 pucks on Johnson but arrive at the intermission trailing 2-1.
Jack Eichel’s go-ahead goal for the Sabres at 17:20 of the first was a stinker, as defenceman Ben Hutton and then Markstrom made terrible plays on what looked like a half-hearted rush by the Buffalo star.
“You look at the shot clock, 17-5, that’s a great period for us,” Markstrom said. “That’s what everybody said here, too. What I did on the second goal, that was the only bad thing. I came in (to the dressing room) and I got a little, uh, I got a little bit of adrenalin going for sure. You’ve got to get a little mad.”
Then the Canucks got more than even.