The Vancouver Canucks are crushing two-goal deficits and blowing two-goal leads. They’re up, they’re down, winning shootouts, losing shootouts. They’ve got the other team’s fans either booing or roaring with joy.
Man, what a season. And that’s just the Canucks’ first two games.
With 80 to go in Vancouver’s National Hockey League schedule, it’s too early for anyone without self-invented simulation models to definitively brand the Canucks good or bad, but they’ve been riotous fun to watch so far. And with the NHL and its fans reunited in arenas after the COVID-19 estrangement, fun feels important.
On the road in a hostile building – Philadelphia fans can be hostile to any team, including their own – the Canucks blew a two-goal lead in the final 2 ½ minutes of the third period Friday, only to dominate overtime before winning 5-4 in a shootout when Flyers goalie Carter Hart turned back into a pumpkin.
This bungee jump of a game followed the Canucks season-opening loss Wednesday in Edmonton, where they surged back from a late, two-goal deficit before losing 3-2 to the Oilers in a shootout.
The bottom line is this imperfect club, with a bunch of new players in the lineup and a bunch of old ones still unavailable, has launched itself into the regular season by taking three out of four points at the start of a six-game road trip.
“We just got better as the game went on,” Canucks coach Travis Green said late Friday. “We weren't very good in the first period. Philly has us hemmed in our zone. I didn't think we had our skating legs. We talked to the team after the first, and I really like how they responded. Second period was good. I thought our third period might have been our best period.
“For the most part, I've liked probably five of our six periods so far, and it's nice to see our guys get rewarded tonight.”
It feels almost derisive now to refer to Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko as “Bubble Demko” whenever he plays well because he has done that so frequently since his brief, brilliant cameo in the playoff bubble two summers ago. His identity deserves a far deeper (and updated) foundation.
Due to the plot twists and emotions at the end of the game, Demko’s sublime work in the opening period, when he seemed like the only Canuck facing the Flyers’ roster, was easy to overlook. Philadelphia had the game’s first eight shots, overwhelmed Vancouver 14-5 in the first 20 minutes, yet led only 1-0. And that goal was a fluke, the rebound from Joel Farabee’s shot bouncing in off Canuck defenceman Tucker Poolman.
The most basic element of Friday’s win is that Demko was much better than Hart, who was awful in the middle period before making a bunch of saves in the final 25 minutes.
But in the shootout, Demko stared down Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux, while Hart was badly beaten by Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller. Hart somehow lost his angle on Pettersson, leaving the Canucks’ best player with a tonne of open net to left of the goalie’s catching glove.
“Last second, I changed (my shot) because I saw there was an opening on the low glove side,” Pettersson explained. “So I went to that when I saw the opening.”
There was a lot of discussion post game about a disputed penalty call against Canucks defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and a dubious icing call that Vancouver winger Matthew Highmore appeared to beat, which enabled the Philadelphia comeback. But there wasn’t enough talk about Canucks captain Bo Horvat needlessly icing the puck between the third and fourth Flyer goals by shooting for the empty net from his blue line.
Horvat is usually excellent defending five-against-six, but on the icing that led to the faceoff preceding Giroux’s tying goal at 18:48, the Canuck had room to skate with the puck or make a soft chip but instead rifled wide of the empty net from 120 feet away.
“The icing is one of those plays you'd like have back, but I thought he (Highmore) beat it,” Green said.
Part of the Canucks’ second-period surge that saw them score four times was fuelled by rookie Vasily Podkolzin’s pure, undiluted euphoria after scoring his first NHL goal to tie it 1-1 at 2:36.
After a nice play in the neutral zone by Tyler Myers to spring a three-on-two rush, Podkolzin carried the puck in on right wing, looked pass, then shot brilliantly under the bar glove-side on Hart. It was with a similar shot that Pettersson scored his famous first goal against Mike Smith and the Calgary Flames three years ago.
“I just got so happy for him because when he scored, I just remembered 2018 when I scored my first goal,” Pettersson said. “I just remembered the joy I had, like just something exploding inside of me. I mean (Podkolzin’s) been working so hard. Always comes with a smile to practices, so he's an awesome guy to have on the team and I'm really happy he got the first one there.”
Green said: “We were joking around with him this morning. I told him I had a feeling he was going to get one tonight. That's great to see. It's such a special moment, something that you never forget. Everyone knows. . . it's hard to get to this league. And to get that first goal, you're always dreaming about it as a kid.”
LOVE THE MOMENT
Miller said he didn’t feel the Flyers took the game away from the Canucks late in the third. What he felt at that moment, besides confidence, was gratitude for the privilege of playing in front of 19,338 screaming fans at the Wells Fargo Center.
“You don't want to give up two goals in the last couple of minutes,” Miller said. “But at the beginning of overtime, I looked up in the crowd and it gives you chills to feel that again. That's a big reason we play. We need the fans; they need to be here. That was a pretty rockin' atmosphere. I definitely took a step back before overtime and realized how nice and lucky we are to have the fans back.”
MORE GOOD STUFF
We’d need another thousand words to fully unpack this game, but the Canucks twin dynamos, Conor Garland and Nils Hoglander, always seemed to be on or hounding the puck. They were excellent. But another forward who was really good but got little love was checking centre Jason Dickinson, who had three shots and three hits and whose team had a 10-2 shot advantage and 80.1 per cent of expected goals when he was on the ice at five-on-five.
FINALLY, SO BAD IT WAS FUNNY
Pettersson, who had six shots on net for the second straight game, went 0-for-7 on faceoffs. No one asked him about that during his post-game Zoom availability.
“No questions about faceoffs?” he mused as he left the microphone. “They will be better.”