Canucks' early struggles only a minor setback for ever-improving Pettersson

Watch as a nice pass by Elias Pettersson sets Brock Boeser up for a great goal.

It has been 158 games since Elias Pettersson famously began his career with the Vancouver Canucks by scoring on his first National Hockey League shot against the Calgary Flames.

The dazzling centre has been mesmerizing to watch in most of the games since then, becoming by age 22 one of the top players in the world.

He has raised expectations – for himself and the Canucks – significantly since his debut 28 months ago. Where there was hope when Pettersson started, now there are demands, which is why he will again be a focal point when the Canucks visit the Flames on Saturday.

A catalyst for the Canucks, their chief driver of offence since he arrived in North America from Sundsvall, Sweden, Pettersson and his line struggled at even-strength for most of Vancouver’s split of a doubleheader this week against the Edmonton Oilers.

Please, let’s not call one assist in two games a slump.

Canuck Nation, like most Canadian NHL markets, has a history of reacting to events with the steadiness of a seismograph during an earthquake. We’re two games into the 2021 season.

But Pettersson and winger Brock Boeser have struggled to generate offence in five of the Canucks’ six periods without absent winger J.T. Miller, who, as far as we know, does not have COVID-19 but is subject to the B.C. health ministry’s 14-day quarantine period for coming into close contact with Jordie Benn.

Benn, the Canucks defenceman, reportedly passed and failed a series of tests for the coronavirus but, ironically, may be allowed to return to the lineup before Miller.

Miller’s impact is undeniable.

Miller did not miss a game last season when the Canucks outscored opponents 62-36 with Pettersson on the ice at five-on-five. But in Edmonton, where Pettersson and his teammates were run over Thursday by Connor McDavid, his expected goals-for percentage was just 32.2 and Vancouver was outshot 23-14 when he was on the ice.

The Canucks’ top line was so poor in the 5-2 loss that coach Travis Green quickly separated Pettersson and Boeser from disappointing fill-in Jake Virtanen and lamented after the game: “The line just wasn’t doing anything. They weren’t playing very well. McDavid’s line was spending a lot of time in our zone so we tried to change it up a little bit.”

That is about as blunt as Green has been with criticism of his top players.

About to play their third game in four nights, with the road trip finale also against the Flames on Monday, the Canucks announced that Friday would be a day off and no one from the team was available to the media.

“Absolutely, I can get better,” Pettersson told Sportsnet just before the trip. “That's what I'm working on every day. I'm never satisfied. I always think I can skate faster, protect the puck better -- all the small things that you practice to perfection. I mean, I'm still learning. I'm still young in this league. I'm aware of that. But I'm trying to get better every day.”

That is part of Pettersson’s allure as a player, what endears him to the fan base. His fierce competitiveness matches his skill. He will know he needs to play better in Calgary than he did in Edmonton.

Pettersson has sailed over every obstacle encountered in the NHL. These last two games? Right now, it’s barely a speed bump.

In his pre-season interview, Pettersson said he learned a lot about himself last summer when the Canucks not only made the playoffs for the first time in five years but defeated the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round before eliminating the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

“Every play mattered, every shift,” Pettersson said of his first playoff experience. “If you're slack on one shift, the other team can score a goal. That's playoffs. Things go fast. I would say all the simple things made the biggest difference, like getting the puck out, blocking shots, things like that.

“It was a good learning experience for me to get a sense of what playoff hockey is. As a team, we played good -- one win away from the conference final. I'm really happy with the way I played, but also for the team. It was a good experience for all of us. We're just trying to build on that.”

It’s worth remembering that Pettersson flourished in the Stanley Cup tournament even after first-line winger Tyler Toffoli was hurt in the playoff-opener, and remained so as Miller played through obvious injury.

Not only did the 176-pound Swede withstand the heightened intensity and physical punishment of the post-season, he amassed seven goals and 18 points in 17 games.

“Before the playoffs, I got to spend three months at home and work out and get in better shape,” Pettersson said, referring to the NHL shutdown last spring when the global pandemic began. “That definitely helped. But I did feel that I was better in the playoffs than I was in the season.”

When the Canucks open their doubleheader against the Flames, Pettersson will be shooting against friend and former teammate Jacob Markstrom, the goalie Calgary signed in October to a massive six-year, $36-million contract.

He is also likely to encounter shutdown defenceman Chris Tanev, who followed Markstrom to Calgary from Vancouver.

“It was definitely hard seeing three good friends leave,” Pettersson said of Markstrom, Tanev and defenceman Troy Stecher, who signed with the Detroit Red Wings. “All three of those guys were here when I got here. I was friends with them right away, and all of them took care of me. So it was definitely hard to see them go. But I understand it's a business and all that.

“All of us would love to have those players still. But step back or step forward? I don't know. We've got some really good new guys. We signed (Braden) Holtby, got (Nate) Schmidt in a really good trade. We can't think too much in the past. I stay in the moment now. I'm happy with the team we have now.”

Pettersson was able to say goodbye to his friends in person because he spent the autumn off-season in Vancouver rather than returning to Sweden. With the pandemic, the time of year and quarantine requirements for travellers, Pettersson figured it was just smarter to stay in B.C.

“I didn't really do that many things because of COVID,” he said. “But I enjoyed my time here in the off-season. It was weird, but in a nice way, to be here for a long time. It feels more like home here now. I've settled in even better.”

Yes, he is becoming immune to rain.

“As much as it's nice to have snow,” Pettersson said, “I'd rather have rain because I don't like the cold that much.”

He is aware of the chill that the loss of Markstrom and others have had on the expectations of some for the Canucks this season.

Asked if he likes the idea of being underdogs, Pettersson said: “Please. I mean, we've been under... what’s the word, underdogs? We've been underdogs since I came here. But honestly, we don't think too much about the outside noise. We know we have a good team. We like to hang out and play with each other.

"But absolutely, it motivates me. I've been doubted all my life that I was too small. So honestly, it's nothing new to me.”

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