VANCOUVER – Funeral music at the start of the week, show tunes at the end. Welcome to the Vancouver Canucks’ world.
With radio and social media conjecture last weekend that general manager Jim Benning’s job could be in jeopardy -- seven games into the National Hockey League season, in the middle of a pandemic that precludes any substantive roster changes, when revenue is as suppressed as attendance -- the Canucks rolled over the Ottawa Senators, completing Thursday a three-game series sweep against the worst team in hockey by winning 4-1 at Rogers Arena.
Despite getting outshot each game, the Canucks impeached the Senators by a total score of 16-3 because goalies Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko suddenly surged into form just as Vancouver’s struggling top line of Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser found theirs.
The forward trio generated three more goals on Thursday, two of them by Boeser, and Holtby nearly matched Demko’s outstanding performances Monday and Wednesday with a 36-save effort as the Canucks moved back to 5-5 and into a playoff spot.
The North Division, however, isn’t Canada’s proudest achievement at the moment, and it’s as difficult to draw strong conclusions from Vancouver dusting Ottawa as it was last week when the team was getting overrun by the Montreal Canadiens amid a myriad of halting Canucks mistakes.
But last week, the goaltending needed to be better and the 6-40-9 Lotto Line needed to be found. Which is why the West Coast mood has brightened considerably over the last four days.
It looks like Twitter will have to wait to fire Benning. But stand by: the Canucks open a difficult six-game road trip against the three other Canadian teams in playoff position, starting Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets.
“We knew it was an important series, especially before a road trip and after our start,” Boeser said after lifting his goal total to six in 10 games. “To get back to .500 and play well and play how we've been playing, before the road trip, I think it's huge. It gives our group confidence.”
“We're still trying to figure out some of the kinks in our game... and we're still doing that,” defenceman Quinn Hughes said after setting up a pair of early goals that launched the Canucks’ wire-to-wire win. “Like I said last year, we're going to be better two months from now than we are now. That's just the group we have; the more you play... the more we'll figure each other out. The three games here were really big just to kind of get back on track before things really slide.”
The Canucks did look like a hockey team again, playing with far more positional discipline and better puck management.
The Senators played well in spurts during the three games but couldn’t score, couldn’t get enough saves from Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg, and got little from their emerging stars.
It was so bad for Ottawa, another Tkachuk left angry. Brady Tkachuk pounded the glass in frustration after a last-minute fight Thursday with Zack MacEwen, although he didn’t go full-on toddler tantrum like his brother Matthew did Tuesday in Calgary.
Brady had just one assist in three games in Vancouver and after opening the season with three points in the Senators’ only win, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, has amassed two points over seven straight Ottawa losses since then.
Ottawa’s other young star, defenceman Thomas Chabot, was largely invisible in the series until he caught Hughes on a poor angle one-and-one and scored Ottawa’s only goal on Thursday.
Holtby didn’t face nearly the shot quality Demko saw earlier in the week, but made timely saves, including a breakaway stop on Connor Brown seconds before the end of the middle period and Ottawa trailing 3-1.
Demko said he felt “enough was enough” after his own poor start to the season, and Holtby looked Thursday like he had the same resolve, playing easily his best game of the year and nudging his save percentage north of 90.
“I think we all want to be better, top to bottom,” Holtby said. “But as a goaltender, you pride yourself on trying to be the difference-maker when it's needed. That last Montreal game (5-2 loss on Saturday when Holtby allowed two late goals)... maybe you're nitpicking, but you've got to find a way to do it in order to lead your team when things aren't going well. Obviously, Thatch with the last two games and how unbelievable he played, I think we both know that this season it's going to take both of us to be consistent and try and be the difference makers. This three-game set is a good step in the right direction.”
The Canucks lead the NHL in both goals scored (35) and allowed (36).
Who knows where their next step will take them?