VANCOUVER – Five hundred and ninety-five days between home games with fans, limited only by Rogers Arena seating capacity and not public health officials, is so long that most of the Vancouver Canucks’ lineup has changed.
When the Canucks play their home-opener Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild, there will be only eight players from the lineup that beat the New York Islanders 5-4 in a shootout on March 10, 2020 – two days before the National Hockey League shut down ahead of the coronavirus tsunami.
Canucks scorers that night included Tyler Toffoli, Adam Gaudette and Zack MacEwen, all of them gone. The game’s third star was Alex Edler. His defence partners included Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher.
But the goalie is the same, only better: Thatcher Demko.
“Yeah, that's a long time ago, man,” Demko said after Monday’s practice, reminded of his 41-save performance 19 months ago. “I still remember that game and it's crazy to think that we haven't seen our fans in that long. I know everyone's really excited about it -- we've been talking about it -- we were getting a little itchy on the road there, wanting to get home and play some home games here, especially when we heard it was 100 per cent (capacity).
"Yeah, it's going to be awesome tomorrow. The fans are such a massive element to what we do on a nightly basis, whether you're at home or on the road.”
After being cheered by limited-capacity crowds during the pre-season, the Canucks opened the season with six straight road games, three of them raucous home-openers for the opposition.
While the Canucks were away, going 3-2-1 with a road trip capped by Saturday’s historic 4-2 win in the Seattle Kraken’s first home game, the B.C. government removed the 50-per-cent limit on attendance.
The Canucks know what it’s like to have fans back – just not their fans.
“I've been missing the fans a lot, especially Canucks fans, so I'm very excited for tomorrow,” centre Elias Pettersson said. “It's like an extra player almost. Last year made me realize that fans play a big part of... getting you going into a game.”
Here’s another stark difference from last time Vancouver had a full house for hockey: Pettersson, more than anyone, could use a little boost from fans.
The Canucks’ best forward, Pettersson appeared not far off elite form when he joined the team halfway through the pre-season after missing time due to a contractual standoff with the Canucks.
But where defenceman Quinn Hughes, Pettersson’s friend and training partner during the impasse in negotiations between their agent and the team, got better as the Canucks’ six-game roadie progressed, Pettersson appeared to get worse.
Saturday in Seattle, Pettersson finished with no points, just two shots and 16:56 of ice time. His line, with Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller, was broken up in the second period.
The trio was back together on Monday, but Pettersson has just three points in six games and has managed just six shots over the last four – a sum he managed in each of his first two games. Pettersson’s only goal was from an errant shot that bounced off the end boards Friday in Philadelphia and surprised hapless goalie Carter Hart.
At five-on-five with Pettersson on the ice, Vancouver has been outshot 51-42, outscored 6-5 and the Canucks’ expected goals-for is just 42.4 per cent.
“Sure, I haven't started this season the way I want to,” Pettersson said Monday, “But, I mean, it's life. It doesn't always go the way you want to. I'm just going to work hard and try to make the next game better.”
Is he bothered by it?
“No, it gives you guys something to talk about,” he said.
Clearly, the Swede is still trying to calibrate his timing and feel for the game after spending much of the off-season recovering from a wrist injury, then losing all that key preparation time in September. He has probably been trying too hard to use his hands and not enough to move his feet. He’s also getting crushed on faceoffs, going 12-28 so far.
“I feel like when things aren't going the way I want, the worst thing, I've learned, is to try to do it yourself,” he said. “It's a team game and your teammates are helping you out there. I feel like I've kind of been doing that a little bit. I'm trying to deke my guy instead of making the easy play. When I play good, when I have a good game, points will come. I'm not worried.
“I know what I'm capable of and what it's like. The game is so fast out there, you've just got to react quick, and play with your instincts. I feel like I've been thinking maybe a little bit too much. Just work hard, and, yeah, simplify a little bit.”
Another difference from two years ago? If Pettersson was playing this poorly, the Canucks were probably losing. But scoring from others and especially second-line winger Conor Garland, whose seven even-strength points are tied for second-most in the NHL, coupled with improved team defence and Demko’s excellent .924 goalkeeping have the Canucks above .500 after their road test.
“This is not just the training camp, he missed the last 30 games of last season,” Green said of Pettersson, who suffered a season-ending wrist injury last March 2. “He hasn't played an NHL hockey game for a while. He's still a young guy and we know how good he can be. We know how good he is.”