ABBOTSFORD, B.C. – In a way, you can’t lose in the pre-season.
Score a boatload of goals and win and everyone’s happy and sees things as positive signs for the looming National Hockey League regular season. Lose and, well, it’s just pre-season and the results don’t matter. So be wary of what you read into it.
For the Vancouver Canucks, it was hard not to be excited about their 6-4 pre-season win here Monday against the Ottawa Senators. Considering the Canucks dressed most of their NHL lineup, it’s not like they were dominant. The Senators churned out 45 shots, after all.
But there were two unmistakeable positives for the Canucks: Calder Trophy winner Elias Pettersson looked like an elite NHL scorer, driving the attack with two goals and two assists; and he did it as the fulcrum of a power play that went 4-for-7 against the Senators and decided the game.
“I think my first two pre-season games, I was feeling it but I was kind of tired in my legs,” Pettersson, who had one goal from his first two exhibition contests, told reporters. “It’s great to have a game like this and score two goals and two assists. . . and get some momentum for what’s up next. Of course it builds your confidence.”
There isn’t much doubt that Pettersson can score. And will score this season. But it won’t be enough to get the Canucks into the playoffs unless the power play contributes a lot more to the offence than it did a year ago, when it tied for 22nd in the NHL and generated just 43 goals.
That was 10 fewer than Vancouver scored with Daniel and Henrik Sedin in 2017-18, and if you don’t think that sounds like much of a difference, consider that the Canucks played 42 one-goal games last season and lost 25 of them. No NHL team lost more games by a single goal.
Improving the power play is paramount to finding another 10-15 points in the standings.
This is why Monday was so encouraging.
With probably 14 or 15 of the skaters he’ll start the season with on Oct. 2, Canuck coach Travis Green showed off his new first unit: Pettersson and 2018 Calder finalist Brock Boeser on the wings, with newcomer J.T. Miller in front of the net, Josh Leivo in the slot and Alex Edler on the point.
Edler may have been filling in for dynamic rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes, who did not dress.
Boeser finished with three assists against the Sens, while Miller scored a goal and Edler had one goal and three assists.
“I didn’t watch a lot of what the power play did here last year,” Miller, acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning, said after his best game of the pre-season. “I do know we have a lot of talent. We’ve got two of the league’s elite, young shooters on the flanks and that should make us hard to stop if we’re playing hard.
“Today, we did a good job of not going through the motions just because it’s pre-season. We worked hard at it and it paid off.”
Deploying Miller and Leivo on the first unit allows the Canucks to use forwards Bo Horvat, Tanner Pearson and Sven Baertschi on the second power play.
“They can’t cover all of us,” Pettersson said. “If they cover me too much and take away my one-timer, it’s open down low.
“Hopefully we’ll score more goals because last season, I don’t know, maybe we made it too hard for ourselves. Now we move the puck to an open guy and when we shoot. . . we don’t hesitate too much. It’s only one game, but of course it’s a good start. We have five guys that can score.”
JORDIE OR JAMIE
The goal of the night was scored by stay-at-home defenceman Jordie Benn, another new Canuck, who looked like his sniper-brother Jamie when he buried a breakaway stick side on former Vancouver goalie Anders Nilsson with 2.1 seconds remaining in the second period. Benn emerged from the penalty box and skated on to Tyler Myers’ breakaway pass.
“I think I had eight seconds when I got out of the box, so I knew I had to hurry up,” Benn said. “It was perfect timing.”
When was his last breakaway?
“Honestly, I have no idea,” Benn said. “It might have been peewee or midget (minor hockey) when I was an offensive d-man. But not in probably 20 years. Guys were giving me a pretty hard time about getting a breakaway. But they said: ‘Good shot.’”
Depth defenceman Oscar Fantenberg left the game injured in the first period after being crushed behind the Canuck net by Senator forecheckers Jordan Szwarz and Scott Sabourin. Szwarz was assessed a boarding major and game misconduct for his hit from behind.
The Canucks said only that Fantenburg, in a battle to make the NHL roster after being signed as a free agent, suffered an “upper body” injury. Starting goalie Jacob Markstrom said he spoke with his teammate and hoped he wouldn’t be out long.
Like his team, Markstrom was both good and bad, but made several strong saves with the Senators chasing the game over the final two periods after falling behind 3-1.
“That’s why we play these games — to kind of learn,” Markstrom said. “Myself, too, I’ve got a lot to improve. If we would have been perfect now, we wouldn’t have to have pre-season games, but we do.”
Imagine, an NHL season without the pre-season. Dare to dream.