The slippery slope that eventually led the Canucks over a cliff in November began with a game in Buffalo in which Vancouver blew a two-goal lead in the final two-and-a-half minutes of regulation time and lost 4-3 to the Sabres in a shootout.
The 1-10-2 fall that followed did not kill the Canucks, but they’ve got a long way to climb. Tuesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, 31 days after they lost their footing in Buffalo, the Canucks worked their way towards more solid ground by scoring twice in the last three minutes to win 3-2.
The Canucks are suddenly on a three-game winning streak and look again like the resilient, resourceful team that surprised everyone by starting 10-6-1.
They weren’t as good in Columbus as they were in Sunday’s 6-1 win in St. Louis or last Thursday’s 5-3 win at home against the Nashville Predators.
But they soldiered through their poor stretches against the Blue Jackets without falling behind by more than one goal, and were able to surge in the third when they needed to.
From an acute angle, Jake Virtanen banked a shot short-side off Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo to win it for Vancouver with 1:46 remaining. Josh Leivo’s deflection off linemate Elias Pettersson’s foot had tied it 2-2 just 78 seconds earlier.
Goalie Jacob Markstrom made 34 saves for the Canucks and kept his team in it during the second period when Vancouver was outshot 17-7.
Climbing back towards the Western Conference playoff race, the Canucks will try to extend their win streak to a season-high four games Thursday in Nashville.
LET GO MY LEIVO
After Josh Leivo’s first week with the Canucks, it’s hard to fathom on the West Coast how the Toronto Maple Leafs let the forward go for next to nothing in last week’s trade for second-tier minor-leaguer Michael Carcone.
The trade and Leivo’s immediate impact no doubt reflect the Maple Leafs’ mighty lineup strength and the Canucks’ desperation. But Leivo’s goal and assist on Tuesday, as well as his comfort with an ongoing deployment alongside super rookie Pettersson, are an early validation of the Canucks’ belief that the 25-year-old has the skill to play higher than the fourth line.
What’s been really impressive about Leivo is his hockey IQ. He obviously has learned a lot about the game during his five-and-a-half years as a professional, most of it in the minors, and was well-coached in Toronto by Mike Babcock. Leivo does a lot of things well.
The former third-round draft pick is big enough (6-foot-2) to get to the net, fast enough to keep up to Pettersson and skilled enough to contribute. In four games with the Canucks, he has two goals and an assist and, including his final week as a Leaf, has four goals in his last eight games.
We’re pretty sure he’s not actually going to turn into a 40-goal scorer in the NHL. But we’re dead certain he has helped the Canucks get better.
There was probably a lot of spilled beer around Vancouver when Jake Virtanen – “Shotgun Jake” to anyone who spends much time on social media – scored the winner about 10 minutes after it looked initially like he might have scored the Canucks’ first goal, too. That one, however, was Leivo’s.
With 10 goals in 33 games, the 22-year-old Virtanen has equalled his output from all of last season. The powerful winger finished with 17:36 of ice time, four shots on net, two hits and one block.
A lot of credit for his development goes to coach Travis Green, who started Virtanen’s makeover as a pro two years ago during their season together with the Utica Comets. But the progress this year is all about Virtanen.
He has taken what he has learned about consistency and intensity to make himself better. But there’s also a natural maturation occurring, too.
Virtanen understands the game better and also understands himself better, and it’s this self-awareness that has really helped him. He still needs to train better in the summer and bring his A-game more often. He can’t for a second get complacent about his place in the NHL.
But he sure looks like he’s going to turn into a good pro, albeit not a spectacular one, who could help the Canucks for years. No one could have reasonably projected that at the start of last season.
TANEV’S FINEST GAME
The best thing about Chris Tanev’s season is that he has been reasonably healthy, missing only five of 33 games so far after bruising his hip on Oct. 24. But the shutdown defencemen hasn’t been the defensive titan he was in recent years when he was healthy.
He still gets all the toughest assignments and makes a lot of good plays and remains one of the bravest and most prolific shot-blockers in the NHL. But his even-strength shots-for percentage of 41.3 is among the lowest on the Canucks and more than six points lower than last season’s.
Tuesday, however, might have been his best game of the year. He set up Leivo’s redirection that tied it 1-1 at 8:11 of the third period and was on the ice for both of the Canucks’ goals at the end. Tanev also dived in front of Pierre-Luc Dubois’ shot with 45 seconds remaining after a bad giveaway by Antoine Roussel. And on a night when Vancouver was outshot 36-25, the Canucks controlled 61.8 per cent of shot attempts during Tanev’s 19:45 of even-strength play.
LUCK COMES AROUND
So, the Canucks’ first goal was a redirect off a Columbus defenceman, the second a bounce-in off Pettersson’s toe, and the third a bank shot by Virtanen through a puck-sized hole that Korpisalo left at his near post.
Were the Canucks lucky to win? Yes. And no.
More than a couple of pucks bounced into Vancouver’s net during its 1-10-2 slide and at least that many bounced against them in the offensive zone. Remember the Michael Del Zotto shot that went post-crossbar-post in a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Nov. 12?
Most luck evens out in the long run. It helps immensely if you make your own luck, too.
ONE LAST THING
Didn’t like seeing Columbus power forward Josh Anderson leave the game after being run into the post in the second period. But loved how Vancouver defenceman Ben Hutton didn’t flinch in forcefully cutting off his path when the Blue Jacket had a step on the Canuck and was taking the puck hard to the net.