VANCOUVER – Since eight games weren’t enough to judge and write off Elias Pettersson’s season, one game is a preposterously small sample in which to conclude that the worst is over and the Vancouver Canucks’ best forward is back.
But Wednesday, for the first time in 2021, Pettersson looked like the confident, driven offensive star who burst upon the National Hockey League two-and-a-half years ago.
It wasn’t just that the 22-year-old had a goal and assist, matching his output from the previous eight games, in the Canucks’ 5-1 win against the Ottawa Senators. It was that Pettersson had nine shot attempts, hitting a post and a crossbar as well as scoring. It was that he made one goal possible with a strong defensive play in the neutral zone, and on another play bowled over Evgenii Dadonov when the Senators winger came to deliver a hit.
It was this 200-foot game, this so-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it swagger, that Pettersson was missing as well as the points during the Canucks’ false start to the 56-game season.
“I think when Petey is on top of his game, you actually see a high compete level,” Canucks coach Travis Green said after his team inched back towards .500 -- a minimal threshold it can attain if it completes a three-game sweep against last-place Ottawa on Thursday at Rogers Arena. “We didn’t have exhibition (games); sometimes it takes a little time to get your engine running as hot as it needs to.
“I think we saw glimpses of it tonight out of that line. But you’re right, when he’s engaged and on top of his game, you do see good things come out of other areas of his game that maybe don’t have anything to do with offence. And really, that’s part of winning hockey. All your players have to have that in them if you’re going to win.”
Pettersson and linemates J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser generated three second-period goals after the Canucks barely survived the first when they needed 22 saves from goalie Thatcher Demko to maintain an early 1-1 tie.
The only forward who has struggled as much to meet expectations as Pettersson, Miller scored his first two goals of the season six minutes apart in the middle period as the Canucks blew the game open.
Miller said he thought the third period was his line’s best this season although remarkable grinder, Tyler Motte, scored the only Vancouver goal -- his fifth in nine games.
“We're relied upon to put points up and produce for our team,” Miller said. “We're relied on to work hard and create momentum for our team. Typically, when we work hard, the ice opens up like it did in the third period. We need to be better at the start of the game. I mean, I guess it's nice to produce a little bit but at the same time, our standards are higher than a couple of open nets (goals).”
Miller has said it took him years in the NHL to figure how to be the player he has become. Pettersson is starting only his third season.
What wisdom would Miller offer his linemate?
“Just worry about his game,” he said. “There's a lot of outside noise comes in here all the time and he has to answer about how he's not good enough or whatever it is. He is our best player. I'm not worried about him at all. We know what makes him a good player and we have complete faith that he's going to play well for us coming up.”
Miller’s definition of “all the time” probably differs from reporters’ as Pettersson is available to the media only for a few minutes on Zoom two or three times a week.
He didn’t go more than two games without a point of all last season, but has already endured a five-game scoring famine this season. He looked tentative in some games, hesitant to shoot. At times, he looked at war with the puck, struggling to control it. And he wasn’t engaged physically and defensively like he was Wednesday.
“I think frustration comes when we're not winning games,” Pettersson said. “I think everybody in the locker room wants to win, win badly. Our confidence is good, both for me, and the team. (We) are believing each other, so just build on these two games.
“There's always pressure. And I'm the guy to put the most pressure on me. I always want to play good. I'll be honest, my first couple of games haven't been the way I wanted to play. I think today was definitely a step in the right direction, but me and our line definitely have a lot more to give.”
The Canucks top players will have to give more because the team can’t ask for any more than what its bottom-six forwards have given. And through two wins against the Senators, by an aggregate score of 12-2, they can’t ask anything more of Demko.
His 42-save performance Wednesday was even more impressive than Monday’s 7-1 romp, not only because the Canucks were so poor in front of him in the first period, but because he backed up one excellent performance with a great one.
Two games are not a fluke. Demko has elevated his play and looks suddenly like the goalie whose spectacular playoff cameo last summer made starter Jacob Markstrom a little more expendable.
“The way things are kind of going, one game at a time isn't going to be good enough,” Demko said. “We've got to start stringing something together.”