NEW YORK – Fans love young players. Coaches love reliable ones. Occasionally, those categories seem mutually exclusive.
In the final eight minutes of the Vancouver Canucks’ frantic 3-2 win against the New York Rangers on Sunday, for example, coach Travis Green did not play young stars Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. They were the only Canucks forwards who did not get a shift as Vancouver clung desperately to its one-goal lead.
There were four faceoffs during that frenetic time, three of them in the Canucks’ end. Pettersson, 20, and Boeser, 22, were not going to be sent out for a defensive-zone draw, and Green chose to use captain Bo Horvat with wingers Tanner Pearson and Jake Virtanen for the only offensive-zone faceoff, which occurred with 3:30 remaining.
Pettersson and Boeser played none. Rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes, 20, played two.
The longest shift went involuntarily to the fourth line of Jay Beagle, Tim Schaller and Tyler Motte, who were trapped mostly in their own zone during a 2½-minute Rangers siege that was interrupted only by a Vancouver icing.
Lacking oxygen after their survivor shift, the Canucks’ fourth-liners did not get back on the ice in the last 3½ minutes. But during the siege, the Rangers actually got only two pucks on net. Motte blocked two shots, while Schaller and Beagle each blocked one.
It looked a lot like Vancouver’s penalty kill, which prominently features Beagle, Schaller and Motte and is one of the best in the NHL. It has allowed just two goals all season and was ranked third in the league at 92.6 per cent as the Canucks travelled Monday to Detroit to finish their four-game road trip against the Red Wings on Tuesday.
Another young player, second-year pro Adam Gaudette, can’t get into the Canucks lineup these days and could soon be sent to the AHL for vital playing time. Gaudette has been a healthy scratch since Motte returned from injury four games ago. Traditionally a turnstyle into and out of an NHL lineup, the fourth line has been impenetrable – reliable at even-strength and outstanding on the penalty kill.
"We’ve got five guys who can really kill penalties," Beagle said, referring to forwards and including Sutter and Pearson. "You’ve got to have guys who love to kill, and I think all five of us love to kill. It shows. There’s a lot of pride in it. It helps you win hockey games.
"I remember it was (my former coach) Bruce Boudreau when I was with Washington, he said he was going to give me a chance on the kill and to make it my job and take pride in it. I think that’s something I just held on to always; just that pride in the job and getting it done."
Beagle not only helped blank the Rangers power play on three chances, he scored what became the winning goal on a shorthanded burst to the New York net. So, in 21:28 of shorthanded ice time this season for Beagle, Vancouver has scored as many goals as it has allowed: one.
Schaller has the same shorthanded plus-minus in 17:30 of penalty-kill time, and the opposition power play has yet to score during Motte’s nine minutes of shorthanded TOI.
"It’s a role that I know I can provide value," Motte said. "I don’t think of myself that this (fourth line) is my ceiling by any means. But to have the ability to show I can kill penalties night in and night out is important to my career.
"I think we all feed off each other. Whether you’re feeling great one night or not, we can always grab hold of the PK and know that’s a way we can contribute."
Schaller said: "Being able to shut down other teams’ top lines, we just have so much fun doing it. It frustrates them, not only on the power play but for the next few minutes of the game. The biggest thing is not letting teams set up, and I think we do a great job of forechecking them up ice. When they do get set up, teams are very rarely getting Grade-A opportunities.
"Taking pride in it is exactly what we do. You go out there and do a good job, and when you get back to the bench, guys are patting you on the butt, saying, ‘Good job, great block.’ So the team feeds off that energy."
Schaller wasn’t even expected to make the Canucks this fall after playing so poorly last season that Green healthy-scratched him 35 times. But he earned his spot largely on his ability to kill penalties, and has been a much better player at even-strength this season.
Given little chance to become an NHL regular, Motte has exceeded expectations since being acquired from Columbus in the trade deadline rental of Thomas Vanek two years ago. The only real knock against Beagle is his contract, as the Canucks overpaid two summers ago to lure the free-agent centre from Washington with a four-year, $12-million offer.
But Green trusts them in their roles. For a hockey player, that’s priceless.