In his first game since Nov. 24, Brandon Sutter sniped an overtime winner against the Minnesota Wild as the Vancouver Canucks won consecutive road games for the first time since their pivotal shutdown centre was injured.
The Canucks’ 3-2 win Sunday, made possible by outstanding goaltending from Jacob Markstrom and Thomas Vanek’s tying goal with 3:12 remaining in regulation time, allowed Vancouver to salvage a 2-2-1 record from its week-long road trip and send players happily into their five-day winter break.
The Canucks won 5-2 Friday in Columbus.
Sutter’s advanced stats are rarely impressive, skewed downward by starting three-quarters of his shifts in the defensive zone and usually against the opposition’s best forwards. But in the 21 games Sutter missed with a groin-related injury, the Canucks went just 6-12-3.
The team’s injuries reached a tipping point when top centre Bo Horvat broke his foot on Dec. 5. Horvat remains out and probably won’t play until after the NHL All-Star Break at the end of January.
But the team is getting healthy again, and Sutter’s return, like his game, probably won’t be accurately reflected in numbers alone. He logged 17:47 in his first game in seven weeks – 46 seconds above his season average.
On the winner, he took a stretch pass from Alex Edler, cut to the slot across Wild defenceman Jonas Brodin and slung a wrist shot back stick-side against goalie Devan Dubnyk. Celebrations ensued.
Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s win.
INTO THE DEEP END
Sutter’s winner came two days after Canucks coach Travis Green cautioned against expecting instant contributions from players returning from long-term injuries.
Winger Sven Baertschi, who played with Sutter, returned to the lineup earlier in the road trip after missing four weeks with a broken jaw. Key defenceman Chris Tanev, whose nifty behind the back pass helped set up Vanek’s tying goal, missed nine of 11 games with injuries before returning for the win in Columbus.
“It’s great when you get players back,” Green said. “When you start to miss three, four weeks, five weeks, that’s a big chunk of time. You talk about two months; that’s a summer. To think that a player’s just going to jump in and take off where he left off, that’s not always the case.
“It’s hard. There’s catchup there. You can skate on your own for a week, in some cases two weeks. . . (But) to get into game speed and game action, you can’t mimic that.”
Still, Baertschi scored on Friday and Sutter on Sunday and the eight goals the Canucks produced in the wins matched the team’s offensive output from its previous five games.
DID SOMEBODY SAY PLAYOFFS?
Clearly, the Canucks are a better team with Baertschi and Sutter in the lineup, and they should be significantly better when Horvat eventually returns.
Unfortunately, the depleted Canucks just played too poorly with both Horvat and Sutter missing down the middle (3-11-2) to cling to the playoff race. The back-to-back wins still leave them nine points out of the wild-card playoff spot they held until Horvat was hurt.
The Canucks are not making up this deficit, probably won’t come close to making it up. But they were 14-10-4 when healthy, and they’ll win enough games in February and March to help decide which other Western Conference teams are going to miss the Stanley Cup tournament.
After a dismal December in which he was as bad as the team in front of him, Jacob Markstrom has his game back together.
Markstrom was excellent on this five-game roadie. Against the Wild, he made a brilliant back-door save on Jared Spurgeon in overtime and game-saving stops against Jason Zucker and Eric Staal after Daniel Winnik put Minnesota ahead 2-1 at 12:14 of the third and before Vanek tied it 16:48.
In four starts on this road trip, Markstrom went 2-1-1 with a .927 save percentage.
Thankfully, it appears Green is more willing now to just let Markstrom roll rather than trying to help struggling backup Anders Nilsson help himself. Nilsson, who has allowed 21 goals his last four starts and hasn’t won a game since November, won 1-0 in Minnesota on Oct. 24. Instead of hoping Nilsson might do it again on Sunday, Green went instead with the goalie who gives the Canucks their best chance, by far, of winning these days.
To make room on the roster for Sutter, the Canucks returned offensive prospect Nikolay Goldobin to Utica Comets. Goldobin, who logged only 6:32 of ice time during Friday’s win and failed to make an impact playing with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, had just two goals and two assists in 14 games with the Canucks after a late-November callup.
My takeaway: Goldobin has lots of skill but is far from certain as an NHL prospect. His offensive game, effective in the American Hockey League, hasn’t translated to the NHL in short trials with both the Canucks and San Jose Sharks. He needs to assert himself offensively, be better in puck battles and get to scoring positions more often. But the Russian winger is still only 22. If he regains his scoring touch and confidence back in Utica, he should get another chance with the Canucks this season.
BROCK’S ROCK BOTTOM
How good has rookie Brock Boeser been for the Canucks? His three-game pointless streak – despite a six-shot game against the Wild – is the Calder candidate’s longest points drought this season.
Boeser has just one goal and two points in his last seven games and is “stuck” at 22 goals and 40 points for the season. If this is a slump, he really is going to be a star in this league. He was still the Canucks’ most dangerous forward against the Wild and during his seven-game offensive slowdown has poured 25 shots on net while averaging 19:26 of nightly ice time from Green, who doesn’t give anyone a free pass.
For the second time on the road trip – and we’re guessing the second time in 10 years – Henrik Sedin did not see the ice for the Canucks in overtime. Another sign of the Sedin era ending.
Alex Edler never became the dominant defenceman he was capable of becoming. Just too many nights playing in third gear instead of fourth of fifth. But he has played at a high level the last month and been a workhorse on defence. Whatever he is, Edler is still an impactful player and a darn important one to the Canucks.