Sometimes you win a game you don’t deserve, or lose one where you thought you played well enough to win.
Thankfully, neither was the case Sunday night in Vancouver, where the red-hot Canucks beat the equally torrid Edmonton Oilers 4-2, scoring three power-play goals to tip the scales. On a night where Vancouver was marginally better, the Oilers took some undisciplined penalties against a Canucks power play that simply fed them their lunch, and won Vancouver this game.
The fact the Canucks did not score at five-on-five (until an empty netter by Bo Horvat) speaks to a game won off a Caleb Jones holding penalty and a pair of puck-over-glass calls on Kevin Gravel and Adam Larsson. The Oilers got only one power play, one late, and really didn’t do enough on this night to earn many more.
The Oilers’ best line was their fourth line, which had a ton of possession but doesn’t score much. The Canucks best player was, conveniently, Brock Boeser, who had a goal and two assists.
Takeaways? There were a few:
It was Edmonton’s first look at Elias Pettersson, and he did what all the great players have done over the years — not much, until it mattered.
Pettersson was on the perimeter of this first head-to-head with Connor McDavid, and then — boom! He scores the game-winner on a wrist shot that tells everyone just exactly why everyone on the West Coast (and Sweden) is so excited about this young player.
He has the Calder Trophy in his pocket already, and as for the ongoing Oilers-Canucks rivalry, we’d say that with the two shining young stars each team has, we won’t miss many Vancouver-Edmonton tilts over the next decade or so.
McDavid’s Garage League?
There’s a thing brewing in Edmonton surrounding McDavid, who has fallen victim to ‘volume foul’ syndrome as he travels the NHL in search of his third consecutive Art Ross Trophy.
He still draws a few penalties, but on a night where the Canucks had five power plays to Edmonton’s one, the Oilers predictably wondered why — in their eyes — there appears to be a separate set of rules for restraining McDavid, and for hooking and holding everyone else.
“The tug o’ war on him was absolutely ridiculous today,” Hitchcock told the media in Vancouver post-game. “He’s not allowed to play give and go. It’s give and hold.”
Hitchcock points out that the league wants more speed and skill, yet still allows a player as superior as McDavid to be dragged back by players who can’t keep up to him legally. That argument is a familiar one in Vancouver, where one-time GM Brian Burke once told the assembled media, “Sedin is not Swedish for ‘punch me’ or ‘headlock me in a scrum.’”
As a guy who watches McDavid every night, I would say some NHL defenders are taking the same approach on him that some offensive linemen take in football: They won’t call a penalty on every play, so you might as well cheat as often as you can.
To McDavid’s credit, he doesn’t complain the way Mario Lemieux did when he called the NHL “a garage league.” And he’s not a noted diver, which, frankly, might become a last resort. But Hitchcock did lay down a veiled threat Sunday night, one that will be difficult to employ in 2018.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to fight through it, or we’ll just play toughness with him and figure it out from there,” said the Oilers coach.
It’s funny, a season ago the cry from Oilers fans was to see Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on McDavid’s flank. So they started the season together, and though the relationship was productive, the team wasn’t winning with Leon Draisaitl centering the second line.
Since Hitchcock arrived — and a little bit before that, really — Nugent-Hopkins has been installed at 2C, and the team has found success. Call it chemistry, on a team with a top-heavy group of forwards, this appears to be the best way to deployed.
Nugent-Hopkins scored his 11th goal Sunday, and now has 11-20-31 in 34 games. He continues his march towards playing the game the way his favourite player — Pavel Datsyuk — did, and is producing despite a pair of wingers in Jujhar Khaira and Jesse Puljujarvi who have not proven themselves as legit Top 6 NHL wingers.
Give Hitchcock credit. He knew very little about Puljujarvi when he convinced GM Peter Chiarelli to call up the big Finn and put him under Hitchcock’s watchful eye. And as we watch Puljujarvi, we see a player who is improving — whichever side you land on the argument over whether or not he should be in Bakersfield.
On Sunday Puljujarvi played 14:53 — the most in any game under Hitchcock — and opened the third period on a line with McDavid and Draisaitl. He had the puck more, looked more dangerous, and made the play on Nugent-Hopkins’ goal by going to the net and taking a Canucks defender with him.
There is more there than the day Hitchcock took over, we’ll say that. But his game will have to continue to ascend if he is to become a legit Top 6 player.