WINNIPEG – We would say hell froze over, but then Winnipeg is always frozen this time of year and it has been a hellish place for the Vancouver Canucks since the Jets returned from exile a decade ago. So, Saturday, maybe hell thawed.
The Canucks, who had lost 10 straight games to the Jets and eight in a row in Winnipeg, not only beat the Jets 4-1, but dominated them over the final two periods to extend their winning streak to four games.
Vancouver accomplished more in this one road victory than it did sweeping three home games this week against the hapless Ottawa Senators. The Jets are so not like the Sens. But the Canucks outshot them 31-11 after the opening period and scored as many goals in one night at MTS Place as they had over the last six years.
At 6-5, the Canucks are back above .500 for the first time since opening night and moved two points clear of the Jets in the Canadian playoff race.
“Yeah, we know that we haven't won here for a while,” Canucks coach Travis Green told reporters on Zoom after what could be a seminal victory. “We've had some close games in here, we've had some good games in our building. I think we've had some pretty intense games against this team, and they're a good hockey team. But it doesn't feel like we couldn't beat this team.
“Tonight, all we wanted to worry about was our game. I think the media makes a little bit more out of streaks like that than players or coaches. But it's definitely nice to come in here and get a win because even though you don't talk about it, the players know. I know.”
And now they know they can beat the Jets, whose formidable forwards and heavy game had always given the Canucks trouble.
Brock Boeser scored just 29 seconds into the game and again into an empty net for a victory that launches the Canucks to Montreal for back-to-back games Monday and Tuesday against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Habs may not recognize the Canucks as the team they saw last week in Vancouver, where Montreal won two out of three games and pumped in 17 goals amid slack defending and an epidemic of Canuck turnovers.
“I’m sure you guys can see it just watching the games,” Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko said of the dramatic uptick in systems play. “We’re starting to get some of that chemistry we were talking about. When guys are on the same page, everything just kind of moves a little bit smoother and you start building confidence that way because you can kind of trust the guy next to you a little bit more.”
After a rib injury and 12-game goal slump at the end of last season left Boeser with just 16 goals for the campaign, the Canucks winger suddenly leads the NHL with eight in 2021, one goal ahead of Mikko Rantanen and Connor McDavid.
“I think the last year -- I've said it a lot -- it was a learning experience,” Boeser said. “I think I was in my head the most I've ever been in my head in my hockey career. This year is a fresh start and I just felt like I need to get back to my game, not overthinking things, just playing off instinct.”
He opened scoring Saturday by beating Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck with a deke after the Jets left him unchecked, fooled by Vancouver defenceman Alex Edler, who appeared to be about to ring the puck around the boards to J.T. Miller but slung it back into the high slot to Boeser.
“Eagle shocked the whole rink,” Boeser said. “He made a tremendous pass there. I think everyone thought that he was going to bump it to Millsy behind the net and he did the old Eagle there and kind of looked off Millsy and passed it right to me in front. It was a phenomenal pass by him.”
Not only does Nils Hoglander play lacrosse, but the Swede is also pretty good at baseball, too.
The 20-year-old Canucks rookie has had a pile of good shifts this season but his first-period twirl against the Jets, on Hockey Night in Canada, may have been his best so far in the NHL. And not only because he scored at 8:17 to break a 1-1 tie.
Famous for a pair of “lacrosse” goals in Europe, Hoglander demonstrated his hand-eye coordination by bunting the puck past Hellebuyck after Bo Horvat’s pass hit Mark Scheifele and bounced off the top of the Jets’ net and into the crease.
But the previous 15 seconds were even more impressive for Hoglander, who on the zone entry embarrassed Josh Morrissey with a spinarama move at the blue line before taking the puck hard to the net while holding off the defenceman. Hoglander shot high, but seconds later stole the puck back as Morrissey tried to transition it up ice. The Canuck went hard to the boards with Morrissey, then spun away and beat Winnipeg’s best defenceman to the front of the net, where the cascading puck awaited.
It’s not Hoglander’s skill that has been most impressive since he forced his way on to the Canucks at training camp -- it’s how hard and relentlessly he competes for pucks and protects them once he has them. He makes plays in traffic, where he plays bigger than his five-foot-nine frame.
“I think a little bit I surprised myself,” he said of his NHL start, which includes three goals and six points in 11 games. “I think that’s important for my style to do the D-zone first and then take the offensive zone after that.”
BENN THERE, DONE THAT
We’re not saying Jordie Benn’s return from COVID-19 quarantine is the catalyst for the Canucks’ turnaround, but he has certainly been the catalyst for defence partner Quinn Hughes stabilizing his game and playing with more measure.
A healthy scratch for much of last season and expected to be an extra at the start of this one had he been healthy, Benn has had his best week since joining the Canucks as a free agent in 2019.
Benn’s point shot was deflected in by Zack MacEwen in the second period.
In five games since Green inserted Benn into the lineup on his off-side, to the right of Hughes, the Canucks have outscored opponents 5-0 with the defencemen on the ice together at five-on-five. Before Benn, Hughes was outscored 12-6 at even-strength while playing with a variety of partners.
“He’s a smart guy,” Green said of Benn before the trip. “He’s been calm with the puck, which we’ve liked. He has bought himself some time with the puck. I think he’s bought Quinn a little time, as well. He’s been a good fit with Quinn.”
Last year, Benn couldn’t find a fit with anyone. Now, the 33-year-old is a steadying influence alongside a potential Norris Trophy candidate.