Canucks keep pressure on in playoff race as Holtby finds his game

Tanner Pearson scored the winner in the third as the Vancouver Canucks beat the Ottawa Senators 4-2.

VANCOUVER – A trend has been detected. And we may be crazy, but this seems important.

In the three games the Vancouver Canucks have won since their COVID-19 crisis, they’ve had the better goaltending. The game they lost, the other team had the better goalie.

On Saturday, Braden Holtby outplayed the Ottawa Senators’ two-man goaltending entry of Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg, and the Canucks won 4-2 to keep the pressure on the teams they’re chasing in the National Hockey League playoff race.

This trend, of course, has been around as long as water has been frozen for hockey.

But what’s new about the Canucks’ trend is that they now have two goalies contributing: Holtby and starter Thatcher Demko, who lost to the Senators 3-0 on Thursday through no fault of his own and rested Saturday.

Demko has been excellent most of this season. Holtby has been largely excellent for most of the last decade – but not so much this season until the Canucks went more than three weeks without playing due to a schedule break and an outbreak.

In three games since, Holtby has stopped 98 of 105 shots and gone 3-0.

“I don't want to speak for him, but ... he just looks freer to me,” coach Travis Green said. “I'm not a goalie expert by any means, but he definitely looks confident, he looks freer, things look easier for him.”

After leaving the Washington Capitals for the Canucks before this season, Holtby has been trying to incorporate some technical changes under new goaltending coach Ian Clark. The transition was made more difficult by the loss of the starting job this season to Demko.

Saturday marked the first time since January that Holtby played three times in a week. His last win before the COVID-19 crisis was Feb. 17.

“It's not the reason for success or failure,” Holtby insisted of his workload. “You've just got to show up every day and be ready to play, try and win games as best you can. Obviously, this stretch here has been a little difficult to us. We've had some success by grinding it out. We've got through the nice part of our schedule so it's even more (important) that we come together and get that rhythm as a team to get everyone on board to play games.

“Rest is going to be key ... not just to play our best, but to just stay healthy and not have any long-term effects. I think it's going to take everyone to manage that. Thatch and I know that — that for us to make the playoffs, we're both going to have to find ways to win games.”

Holtby was at his best Saturday in the middle period when a tight-checking game opened up.

The Canucks generated as many scoring chances in the first four minutes of the second period as they did in the opening 20 minutes. None of them turned into goals, but one was still significant.

When Jake Virtanen steered a rebound wide and tried to chase the puck behind the net, Murray, the Senators’ starter who had blanked the Canucks on Thursday, got his stick between the Canuck’s legs and tripped him. The play caused Murray to twist sideways on his knees, and when he was penalized, he skated straight to the Ottawa bench and left the game.

Marcus Hogberg, rushed into the lineup when Ottawa backup Anton Forsberg was injured in the warmup, went in cold at 4:27 and exactly nine seconds later robbed Bo Horvat on a redirect from the slot.

He wasn’t as successful on the next shot he faced because at 4:36 Brock Boeser broke a 1-1 tie by lasering a wrist shot in the short-side top corner that Hogberg couldn’t see through Tanner Pearson’s screen.

In danger of taking advantage of a goalie who had one start in the previous two months, the Canucks levelled the playing field by taking more penalties. Quinn Hughes took a tripping penalty at 7:36 after giving away the puck, and at 11:27 Virtanen took a double-minor for high-sticking Ottawa rookie Tim Stützle.

Vancouver’s best penalty killer was Holtby, who made several strong saves. But his biggest one came at 15:51 when Alex Formenton was awarded a penalty shot when he was slashed on the shoulder by Tyler Myers after an up-ice giveaway by Nils Hoglander.

Holtby stopped Formenton’s deke on the initial breakaway, then rejected the Senator’s penalty shot with a blocker save.

The Canucks could have extended their lead during a two-minute 5-on-3 power play that began at 8:11 of the third period, but Hughes, Boeser and J.T. Miller were fixated on trying to set up a one-timer for Miller, and Hogberg had to make only one actual save.

Less than three minutes after the dismal two-man advantage, Ottawa tied it 2-2 at 11:52 when Evgenii Dadonov's knuckling shot from the left-wing boards handcuffed Holtby.

But Pearson saved the Canucks by scoring with a wrist shot on a 3-on-2 at 13:45, before Miller scuffed a shot into an empty net from Tyler Motte’s feed.

The last Canuck regular to return from COVID, Motte’s 16:59 of ice time included 7:15 of penalty killing as Ottawa’s power play finished 0-for-6.

“We did a lot of good things tonight,” Green said. “Our game was solid in a lot of areas. I just thought we almost shot ourselves in the foot a little bit tonight. We have to play a little bit smarter at certain times. We can't take that many penalties. And then we kill off a penalty and we turn over a puck (Hoglander’s giveaway that led to Formenton’s breakaway) that you just can't do. That's a little bit of youth sometimes in our group. Not only do you get the penalty shot save (from Holtby), but you get the save on the breakaway.”

The teams travel Sunday to Ottawa for games Monday and Wednesday, the start of a stretch that will see the Canucks play their final 14 games over 22 days. It will be good to have two goalies.

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