EDMONTON – When it looked like the first game of this season was going to be like most of their games from last season, the Vancouver Canucks did something to offer hope that things might be different: they came back.
Trying to relaunch themselves and escape the gloomy pall of their last-place finish last spring, the Canucks scored twice on the road in the final eight minutes of the third period against a good team to manufacture a point in what turned out to be a 3-2 shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers in Game 1 of the new season.
Sure, Edmonton goaltender Mike Smith botched the tying goal at 17:11 by Quinn Hughes, who smartly found room short-side from a sharp angle when the Oiler failed to seal his post behind traffic. And yes, Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s power-play goal that started the Canucks back from a 2-0 deficit at 12:28 caromed off the stick of Oiler Ryan Nugent-Hopkins before snaking through Tanner Pearson’s screen.
But the Canucks played their best period when they needed, too, putting the Oilers under enough pressure to draw a couple of penalties that fed Vancouver momentum. And the Canucks, back-stopped by goalie Thatcher Demko, did a solid job limiting the all-universe duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
The Canucks played positively and came away with something, rather than nothing.
“We've been talking about committing to defence, and I thought we did a really good job in camp and I thought we did a good job tonight, too,” veteran Ekman-Larsson said after making his Canucks debut with an ‘A’ on the first National Hockey League jersey he has worn that didn’t belong to the Arizona Coyotes. “We didn't give up much. Telling the boys in the room, too -- we were talking about it before the third -- that just stick with and keep playing the way we were, and we got a huge point.”
The message after 40 minutes was, Hughes said: “Just that we have an opportunity to come back and have a good start to the season. I guess send a message, not only to them but to our group, that we have a good team and we can come back from behind like that.”
The Oilers took two points when Kyle Turris shot between Demko’s pads in the fifth round of a shootout that had been extended by Canuck Bo Horvat’s clutch goal.
Demko finished with 32 saves – four fewer than Smith – whose three overtime saves included a point-blank stop on Pearson.
In the shootout, the Canuck goalie stuffed McDavid and Draisaitl, who generated a power-play goal in the second period but finished with just two shots apiece on target.
“I liked a lot of things,” Demko said of the team in front of him. “Obviously, I'm focused on what I've got to do, what my job is, but I thought our attention to detail was really good tonight. Guys were working really hard for each other to try and limit space for their top line. When you do that, you give yourself a much better chance to win. I think at the end of the night, it paid dividends for us.”
The Canucks couldn’t survive a bad spell in the first period and didn’t capitalize on a good spell in the second as the Oilers built their 2-0 lead.
Vancouver had a solid first 10 minutes, outshooting Edmonton 8-5 and generating a few scoring chances, including a breakaway for Horvat that the captain fired off the outside of the post.
But the Canucks suddenly lost hold of the game and over a four-minute span were outshot 9-0. The last of these made it 1-0 at 16:55 and the goal, at the end of an overextended shift that left Canuck skaters too tired to maintain defensive coverage, looked uncomfortably like a pile of goals they surrendered last season.
After Alex Chiasson lost his point coverage, Oiler Darnell Nurse was given an open lane to skate in and shoot on Demko. Alone in front, unchecked and untouched by five Canucks who had been on the ice for at least a minute, Jesse Puljujarvi collected the rebound and easily lifted it into the net. J.T. Miller, the nearest Canuck to Puljujarvi, had dropped his stick while trying to take away Nurse’s passing lane and was trying to pick it up as Edmonton scored.
The Canucks manufactured a similarly dominant spell in the second period, outshooting the Oilers 8-1 and generating excellent scoring chances for Horvat and Kyle Burroughs.
But momentum ended with a Canuck penalty for too many players at 16:17 – another negative reminder of last season when Vancouver had the fourth-most bench minors in the league – and 55 seconds later McDavid and Draisaitl passed across the slot twice to set up a tap-in for Zach Hyman.
The Canucks team we saw in the third period, however, looked a lot different than the fragile, brittle group that collapsed last season.
It was a start.
“It's always important to get a good start,” Hughes said. “Last year, we didn't get a good start and that's tough right off the bat when you're already struggling. So to fight back and get a point today, it's encouraging.”
The Canucks’ six-game road trip resumes Friday in Philadelphia.