VANCOUVER – The way things are going these days, just about every opponent looks like Goliath to the Vancouver Canucks’ David. But no one is bigger in the National Hockey League right now than Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
More than one-third through the season, the Edmonton Oilers’ McDavid is on pace for 104 points. Matthews has 18 goals in 19 games, putting the Toronto Maple Leaf on pace for 52 goals. We remind you, this is a 56-game season.
These totals are almost unthinkable. Fifty goals or 100 points in a pandemic-shortened year would be talked about forever in Canada. Either achievement would be regarded as historic.
And yet the Calgary Flames, embarrassed 7-1 by the Oilers on Saturday and approaching a crisis point after four losses in five games, went into Toronto on Monday and shut out Matthews and the mighty Maple Leafs 3-0. The Flames held Matthews to just three shots on goal as the early Hart Trophy co-favourite, who had scored seven times in the previous four games, had a 16-game points streak end.
Tuesday night, the equally desperate Canucks must find a way to limit McDavid, who is coming off a hat trick and five-point game against those same Flames.
It would help to follow Calgary’s blueprint: get superb goaltending and score a couple of times on the power play. Both have been issues for the Canucks.
But the game is likely to come down simply to how well Vancouver defends against McDavid and the Oilers’ other superstar, Leon Draisaitl.
In their season opener, which seems a decade ago but was only Jan. 13, McDavid was held pointless and the Canucks beat the Oilers 5-3. That was the high point of Vancouver’s season so far because McDavid’s revenge came 24 hours later when his four points included a hat trick in a 5-2 win against the Canucks.
“He’s one of the best in the league and everyone knows it,” Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes said after Tuesday’s morning skate. “I think he’s going to get his chances – he’s too good of a player not to. For us, we’ve just got to do as good a job as we can to limit how many he gets. As a five-man unit, you’ve got to know when he’s out there and you might have to think defensive on that shift when you’re out there.”
Canucks coach Travis Green will likely try to get his top defence tandem of Alex Edler and Nate Schmidt out against McDavid, fronted by Vancouver centre Bo Horvat, who played one of his best games of the season head-to-head against the Oiler in that fondly remembered season-opener.
Green revealed Tuesday morning only that his goaltender will be Thatcher Demko, which was expected after Braden Holtby looked awful on one goal and suspect on two others as the Canucks blew a two-goal lead and lost 4-3 in overtime Sunday against the Winnipeg Jets.
It continued a dispiriting trend that has seen the Canucks play vastly better since their atrocious start to the season, only to find the results mostly unchanged. Despite being the better team over their last seven games, Vancouver is just 2-3-2 in that span and teetering near the bottom of the North Division.
“It can definitely be hard at times to stay positive,” winger Brock Boeser said. “But we all feel in the room that we’re playing better and we’re right there. We’ve done a lot better job defensively and not giving the other teams a lot of chances, working together to break the puck out cleanly. There are just some small details in some of these games ... that cost us. I think if we take care of those, we’ll string a few wins together, and that’s something we really need right now.”
The Canucks have had one winning streak this season, a four-gamer at the end of January that included three victories against the last-place Ottawa Senators.
The Oilers and Canucks play a rematch at Rogers Arena on Thursday. Edmonton has won nine of its last 11 games and, interestingly, beaten every other team in the division except the Canucks.
“I think our group is in a good state of mind,” Green said. “I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve only come out of the last six games with six points. But I do like where they’ve come to from where they were in that stretch of games. We met with our group today ... and talked about not looking back and controlling what you can. And what you can control today is what you do today.”