VANCOUVER – One month ago, the Vancouver Canucks were coming off a 1-6 pre-season in which they were outscored 31-10. Elias Pettersson was only a theory, Jacob Markstrom was their least bad goalie, Shotgun Jake sounded like a character from an NRA cartoon, and winning seemed like a mission to Pluto.
On Thursday, as the 8-6-0 Canucks sat in first place in the Pacific Division, Pettersson was named National Hockey League rookie of the month for October and is a West Coast sensation rivalled, albeit distantly, only by the online #ShotgunJake movement that has some fans chugging beer each time Jake Virtanen scores, which has happened five times already.
Markstrom is tied for fourth in wins among NHL goalies, the Canucks have 39 goals in their first 14 games since the retirement of offensive legends Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and a team that had 73 points last season and 69 the year before has beaten the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, Vegas Golden Knights, Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks despite missing up to six injured regulars, including their best two defencemen.
Other than that, it’s been a disappointment.
It’s possible Vancouver’s roster is filled with Mr. Octobers, guys whose best month of the season will turn out to be the first one. But where the Canucks are, from where they were, is startling when viewed from a distance.
They’re playing faster, scoring more goals, winning more games and proving far more difficult to play against than anyone expected. They’ve also built in one month an identity that might have taken a year – or longer – to construct.
“I like that we’re buying in,” coach Travis Green said Thursday. “You’re trying to sell Kool-Aid and hopefully they drink it. When you get a few wins, it helps.
“We’ve talked about being hard to play against and having a work ethic that’s very high. Overall, I’ve been happy with that part of it. Sometimes from the outside in. . . it looks like an easy game. It looks like the plays are easy to make. But when you’re at ice level, man, if you’re not willing to work and really dig in, it’s hard to win in this league. I think we’ve kind of got that mentality; we’ve tried to install that.”
Lucky to be tied 2-2 going into the third period on Wednesday, the Canucks outplayed the Blackhawks in the third period at Rogers Arena to earn their 4-2 win and inch two games above .500 for the fourth time.
They haven’t yet gone three wins above .500, which they’ll try to do Friday against the Colorado Avalanche.
The Canucks will face Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen without workhorse defencemen Alex Edler (sprained knee) and Chris Tanev (bruised hip), who will miss their fifth straight game.
Tanev, at least, should play next week when the Canucks start their second six-game road trip of the season.
Vancouver finished Wednesday’s game with just five defencemen when Troy Stecher was hit in the head by Blackhawk Brandon Manning in a collision away from the puck. Stecher practised with the team Thursday at the University of B.C. and declared himself good to go Friday.
Vancouver’s third and fourth-line centres will again be minor-league callups Adam Gaudette and Brendan Gaunce, as they fill-in for the long-term injured Brandon Sutter (separated shoulder) and Jay Beagle (broken forearm).
Canuck injuries should have reached a critical mass by now, but the team has soldiered on, carried by enthusiasm, confidence and Pettersson, the 19-year-old Swede who has seven goals and 10 points in his first eight NHL games.
“I’m not thinking about winning awards,” the teenage centre said when asked about the NHL’s acknowledgement for October. “If I focus on playing good every game, good things will happen.
“I’m enjoying it very much. It’s always been my dream to play in the NHL and now I’m here. It’s a good group of guys, trainers and all that, so I feel comfortable where I am.”
Pettersson, who has learned as a prodigy to be respectful and deferential towards older players, is as popular with teammates as he is with fans.
“A lot of the stuff, you kind of just sit on the bench and giggle,” defenceman Erik Gudbranson said of Pettersson’s skill. “You forget about the intensity of the game for a second and kind of look, like: Oh-my-god-he-just-did-that. It’s impressive to watch. He’s extremely talented and fun to play with.”
Veteran Antoine Roussel said: “Our team just got going right away and it’s fun because these young kids are hungry to prove themselves. I knew coming in we had some good young leaders, and they show up. As someone who’s been through a rebuild as a young guy (in Dallas) and now I’m a little older, it’s fun to see those kind of personalities that bring the team up.”
Like Green, Roussel said collecting some early wins has been paramount to building culture and validating the beliefs the coaching staff is trying to instill.
“If you get success doing one thing, why change?” Roussel said. “And everybody sort of has success right now.”
• Eight days after being shouldered in the head by Vegas’ Tomas Hyka, Canuck winger Sven Baertschi has made little progress in his recovery from concussion. . . Vancouver recalled Utica Comet Jalen Chatfield for defensive depth and returned Guillaume Brosebois to the American League so the blue-line prospect can get playing time. . . With minor-league goalie Richard Bachman backing up Markstrom due to injuries to Anders Nilsson (broken finger) and Thatcher Demko (concussion), Utica’s goalies are Ivan Kulbakov and Connor LaCouvee. Kulbakov is on an AHL contract and LaCouvee a professional tryout.