Canucks start the new year with meaningful wins, both on and off the ice

Tanner Pearson had goal and an assist and Thatcher Demko turned aside 30 of 32 shots as the Vancouver Canucks defeated the Seattle Kraken 5-2.

The Vancouver Canucks are way ahead of everyone on the new year. Way ahead on the happy part, too.

The National Hockey League team changed calendars on Dec. 5 when coach Bruce Boudreau took over the struggling Canucks, who were 8-15-2 and nine points out of a playoff spot.

The team couldn’t possibly be as bad as it showed in the first quarter. But nobody in their right mind, including anyone inside the organization, envisioned the Canucks could be as good as they’ve looked since.

Saturday’s 5-2 road win against the Seattle Kraken lifted Vancouver’s record to 8-0-1 under Boudreau – 17 out of 18 points – and brought the Canucks within two points of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, albeit with fewer games remaining than their rivals.

Their performance at Climate Pledge Arena, and especially a dominant first period in which the Canucks built a 2-0 lead and were never much threatened after that, was significant because it followed Vancouver’s poorest game under Boudreau: Thursday’s 2-1 shootout loss when the team needed backup goalie Jaroslav Halak to steal a point against the Los Angeles Kings.

Against the Kraken, the Canucks got goals from throughout their Covid-weakened lineup. Rookie Vasily Podkolzin and sophomore Nils Hogander scored in the opening period, and Tyler Motte and Conor Garland scored in the third before Tanner Pearson capped the win with an empty-netter.

“When you can get all four lines scoring, that’s music to a coach’s ears,” Boudreau told reporters during his post-game Zoom availability. “It makes it difficult for other teams to play against you when everybody’s scoring.”

Covid update

Forward Jason Dickinson on Saturday became the fourth Canuck in COVID-19 protocol, joining teammates Justin Dowling, Brock Boeser and Phil di Giuseppe.

Having decided to fly home from L.A. and then travel to Seattle on game day, Boudreau dressed a lineup of 11 forwards and seven defencemen. But he said after the game that at one point as many as five players and staff were expected to go into protocol before a series of negative tests erased all the positives except Dickinson’s.

“It’s a little new to me,” Boudreau said of the pre-game uncertainty. “The whole day was a little crazy. When you have so many changes potentially to make, it gets a little wild out there.”

Gordie Howe hat trick

Pearson doesn’t fight much, but he is an old-school kind of player and on Saturday manufactured an old-school kind of hat trick by having a goal, assist and fight against the Kraken. Those achievements came in reverse order.

Pearson stepped up to fight Carson Soucy at 5:12 of the opening period after the six-foot-five defenceman dangerously hit the five-foot-eight Garland along the boards a second after the puck left the area. Pearson, who has had only five fights in nine NHL seasons, drew a second assist on Garland’s goal that made it 4-2 at 11:29 of the third period, before scoring his empty-netter with 2:17 remaining.

“Starting my career off, I'd probably have put more money on myself to get a hat trick before a Gordie Howe,” Pearson said. “But at the end of the day, to be able to say you did it, it’s pretty cool.”

The 29-year-old winger, whom critics felt enjoyed privileged status under previous coach Travis Green, is earning 17:22 of nightly ice time under Boudreau and has seven points in nine games since the coaching change.

The new mighty Quinn

We get it. Coaches will do everything they can to support their top players, trying to pump up their confidence and make them believe the boss has their back. But even amid this culture, what Boudreau said about Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes after the morning skate was noteworthy.

The 22-year-old has been playing at a Norris-calibre clip for most of this season, and especially since Boudreau took over, by filling out his game and proving he is more than just an undersized offensive defenceman.

“First, he's extremely competitive; he wants to be the best,” Boudreau said when asked for his four-week assessment on Hughes. “That's a great trait and all stars have it. They want to be No. 1; they look around the league and see what other guys are doing (and) they want to be better than them. Second thing I noticed is how much poise he has in all situations. Third, he could be the best passer this side of Nic Backstrom that I've seen. Some of the passes that he's put on the tape, I have to shake my head. He is such a good passer.

"Everything you heard about him, I think he's been better than advertised. I think the sky's the limit. He's still young, he's going to get better.”

After being embarrassed last season to finish minus-24, Hughes vowed to be better defensively and so far this season has jacked up his shots-for percentage to 54.4 while playing so well at five-on-five that Vancouver has outscored opponents 25-18 with Hughes on the ice. And he’s still pouring in points, amassing 28 in 33 games.

A New Year's gift

There has been so much mental stress and fear, physical loss and personal sacrifice during the pandemic that everyone hopes 2022 will be better. To start the year, Canucks trainer Brian (Red) Hamilton shared an incredible story about a random act of kindness that he says may have saved his life.

During the team’s first visit to Seattle, for the Kraken’s inaugural home game on Oct. 23, a Seattle fan knocked on the glass behind the Canucks’ bench to get his attention, and showed the assistant equipment trainer a message on her phone: “The mole on the back of your neck is cancer.”

Seattle Kraken fan Nadia Popovici poses for a photo before an NHL hockey game between the Kraken and the Vancouver Canucks, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Hamilton later checked with Canucks’ medical staff, who also were concerned, and it was determined that the mole was a Phase 2 malignant melanoma. Hamilton had it removed.

“She saved my life,” Hamilton told reporters on Saturday. “She didn’t take me out of a burning car. . . but she took me out of a slow fire. The words out of the doctor’s mouth were if I ‘ignored that for four or five years, I wouldn’t be here.’”

He wanted to thank the fan on Saturday when the Canucks returned to Seattle, but had little idea who she was. So, through the Canucks’ social media channels, Hamilton sent out a message before the game telling his story and asking for help locating the woman. The message eventually reached the fan, a 22-year-old aspiring medical student named Nadia Popovici.

Hamilton thanked her with a hug before the game, and it was announced inside Climate Pledge Arena during a television timeout that the Canucks and Kraken were jointly contributing $10,000 US towards medical school for Popovici.

“I’m so in shock,” Popovici said. “They have no idea what this money means to me.

“I’m just so happy that he has gotten it removed. Hopefully, he lives a very, very long life.”

Happy New Year, everyone.

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