‘Back to doing what we do’: Canucks reset defensively with low-event hockey

Casey DeSmith held down the crease with 26 saves and Nils Hoglander's opening strike held up as the Vancouver Canucks blanked the Minnesota Wild 2-0.

VANCOUVER — It was so boring, it was beautiful.

The Vancouver Canucks followed one of their worst defensive efforts of the National Hockey League season with one of their best, surviving a leaden opening 11 minutes Thursday to beat the suddenly-hot Minnesota Wild 2-0 at Rogers Arena.

It was low-event hockey on demand, as coach Rick Tocchet had all the “entertainment” he could handle in Tuesday’s 6-5 loss to the New Jersey Devils — a game that felt alarmingly similar to that dark period a year ago when the Canucks were the most flamboyant losers in the NHL as they failed repeatedly to outscore their structural problems.

Thursday was an encouraging reset for a team that had lost six of its last 10 games. The Canucks put the Wild on the power play only once, allowed just 14 shots over the final two periods and surrendered exactly one high-danger scoring chance against (according to naturalstattrick.com) after the first. 

They shut out a Wild team that had won all four games, while scoring 18 goals, since John Hynes replaced Dean Evason as coach.

It was dull — but not to the Canuck players most responsible for the win.

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Starting for the first time in nearly two weeks, and the second time in 10 games, backup goalie Casey DeSmith was outstanding early on and finished with 26 saves for his first shutout as a Canuck. And the goals were scored by third-line centre Teddy Blueger and recently-promoted winger Nils Hoglander, who skated on the second line and now has six goals in 12 games since he was a healthy scratch.

“Yeah, there was last game,” Vancouver defenceman Ian Cole said, “but how things have been trending in the past five, seven, 10 games, I think that winning the game tonight 2-0 is better for us as a team than winning a 7-3 game or something like that and scoring a lot of goals. It helps us see what we can do defensively.

“When we can get a shutout for our goaltender, it’s a good game. It’s something we can build off and it’s something that we can kind of use to reset defensively and structurally and go from there.”

DeSmith is 5-2-1 since joining the Canucks in a pre-season trade from Montreal to provide experience and dependability behind star starter Thatcher Demko.

Despite his lack of game activity the last couple of weeks, DeSmith’s practice work and extra sessions with goalie coach Ian Clark had him sharp from the opening faceoff. This was essential since the Canucks, perhaps traumatized by their defensive ineptitude against the Devils, looked paralyzed as the Wild outshot them 10-0 before Ilya Mikheyev finally discovered the identity of the Minnesota goalie when he directed a puck on Filip Gustavsson 13 minutes into the game.

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“Definitely, it’s nice to get the shots early and a little bit of zone time,” DeSmith smiled about his hectic start, which included a couple of tough wraparound saves and a point-blank stop on Connor Dewar. “Clarkie and I have been working on some stuff: some down-low stuff, some post stuff, just cleaning up some movement especially down in tight, which in the first period I saw a lot of that. It’s good thing we worked on it.

“That’s my job to just kind of weather the storm at the beginning there, let the guys get their legs under them, and then they did a lot of the rest.”

Hoglander scored on a three-on-two rush at 18:05 of the first period with a shot from distance that went through two Minnesota defenders. And after the Canucks failed to score despite dominating the second period, Blueger badly fooled Gustavsson on a breakaway at 2:05 of the third after a beautiful pass by Conor Garland.

DeSmith made 26 saves and his teammates blocked another 28 shots. 

“Listen, Casey is one of the happiest, smiliest, greatest guys to be around,” Cole said. “He’s always here every day with such a great attitude, so he’s a guy that you really want to play for. It’s similar to Marc-Andre Fleury, for instance. His teammates just love him.

“They didn’t have a ton of shots, didn’t have a ton of chances. But when they were pushing in that first period, Casey really held the fort down for us. He made a couple great saves, kind of calmed us down and then we started going, which was great.”

J.T. Miller had six of the shot blocks for Vancouver, and one of the three posts the Canucks rang behind Gustavsson. He also had four of the Canucks’ 17 shots on net and 22:38 of ice time while helping blank Minnesota stars Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello.

“What I’m happy with as they came out flying — the first 10 minutes they were executing at a really high level — (but) we just made sure we stayed calm and didn’t hit the panic button,” Miller said. “We did a good job of that (in the first period) and then after that, we just played a hard-checking game. We limited their big chances. We got back to doing what we do.”

What they need to do.

ICE CHIPS – With Hoglander elevated to play with Miller and Brock Boeser, Andrei Kuzmenko skated on the fourth line with Nils Aman and Phil Di Giuseppe, who got back into the lineup for Linus Karlsson. . . The 17-9-1 Canucks continue their five-game homestand Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes.

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