What looked like an artful portrait for rookie Nils Hoglander turned into a much grander canvas for the Vancouver Canucks as they opened the 2020-21 NHL season with a 5-3 win Wednesday against the Edmonton Oilers.
Hoglander, the just-turned-20 rookie who blew everyone away at training camp to make the Canucks, not only scored in his debut but made a handful of crafty, confident plays and looked capable of continuing the line of ascension into the NHL by highly gifted Vancouver prospects.
For two periods, Hoglander was one of the best Canucks and easily the best story.
But when the Canucks seized the game from the Oilers in the third period, Brock Boeser scored twice with laser wrist shots. Quinn Hughes set up one of the goals with a behind-the-back pass from his butt. Elias Pettersson sprung Boeser on other with a sublime cross-ice bank pass that was as much about geometry and physics as hockey. Both plays were all-world.
Boeser was a Calder Trophy runner up in 2018, the year before Pettersson won the rookie award. Last season, Hughes finished second to Cale Makar in Calder balloting when the Canucks were the first team in nearly 50 years to have a player finish in the top-three in rookie voting in three consecutive seasons.
And now they have Hoglander, who helped set up Bo Horvat’s opening goal for the Canucks before scoring his own late in the second period on a rebound from Tanner Pearson’s shot.
A second-round pick playing sooner than expected, Hoglander is unlikely to follow his teammates to the awards podium next summer. But he looks like another part of one of the most talented groups of young players in the NHL. Boeser is 23, Pettersson, 22, and Hughes, 21. And just because, Horvat is still only 25.
The Canucks are trying to win now, and proved in last summer’s Stanley Cup tournament that they are a dangerous team. But you could see Wednesday why people on the West Coast are so excited about this team. The Canucks are only going to get better.
BOESER’S BEST: Considering he is regarded as the best finisher on the team, it is astonishing that Boeser went 367 days between regular-season goals. The winger from Minnesota had last scored on Jan. 11, 2020, when he sniped two in Buffalo. His final two months of the regular season was divided between a rib-cartilage fracture and 12-game goal slump – by far the longest in his short career. And of course, there was a pandemic.
Boeser did score four times in 17 games during playoffs in the Edmonton bubble last August. But to bury two in the 2021 season-opener, especially with heavy, accurate wrist shots, should be hugely important to Boeser’s confidence.
He spent the autumn off-season working on his quickness and shooting, and both looked superior on Wednesday. Boeser had said he should score 30 a season in the NHL. We think he meant an 82-game season.
FUN FACTS: Hoglander’s goal in his first NHL game matched what Pettersson and Boeser did in their Canucks debuts. And the Swede also played his first shift on the road in Edmonton against Connor McDavid – just like Hughes did last season.
BO-DACIOUS: Horvat may wish to purchase a second home in Edmonton – not that anyone actually does that – after adding to the 10 goals he scored at Rogers Place during the playoffs.
With Pettersson and Boeser struggling the first two periods to generate offence without COVID-quarantined linemate J.T. Miller, the Horvat-Hoglander-Pearson line was the best on the ice – an impressive achievement when the Oilers are throwing McDavid and Leon Draisaitl out on consecutive shifts.
Even-strength shot attempts were 18-6 for Horvat’s line. Shots were 11-2 and the line’s expected-goals share was 82.8 per cent. These numbers become truly mind-blowing when you consider than two-thirds of Horvat’s five-on-five ice time was against McDavid.
ANOTHER DEBUT: Lost amid the dazzling offensive feats of the Canucks’ young stars, goalie Braden Holtby had a strong debut for Vancouver after spending the last 10 years and 468 NHL games with the Washington Capitals.
Holtby stopped 28 of 31 shots, hadn’t much chance on any of the Edmonton goals, and outplayed Koskinen when it came to big saves. He made point-blank stops against Kailer Yamamoto and Alex Chiasson as the Oilers pushed late in the third period.
But as impressive as the saves were, even more so was how Holtby looked making them: balanced, controlled, confident. Canucks goaltending guru Ian Clark has been working with Holtby to keep the goalie’s weight more on top of his skates to improve balance and movement when he’s stopping pucks. It looked in Game 1 like it’s working.